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Amazon drone deliveries nearly ready for prime time with Oregon crashes in rear-view mirror

This latest iteration of Amazon's package delivery drones will be used to drop off packages in customers' backyards.
Amazon Prime Air
This latest iteration of Amazon's package delivery drones will be used to drop off packages in customers' backyards.

Amazon made news this month by announcing it will start package deliveries by aerial drone to real customers in a northern California town. In the run up to the U.S. debut, the company conducted extensive flight tests in Eastern Oregon, where it experienced a spate of crashes. Amazon said Monday the upcoming rollout of commercial drone delivery signifies the refined technology is safe and no longer experimental.

The Seattle-based e-commerce giant announced on its corporate blog that the first U.S. customers to be able to order small items for speedy delivery by drone will be in Lockeford, California.

Lockeford is an unincorporated town at the north end of the Central Valley with a population of about 3,500. California Assemblyman Heath Flora, who represents the area in the Legislature, said it’s natural to ask, “Why Lockeford?” He sat in on an advance briefing Amazon provided to local officials.

“I think there were a couple factors: It was the FAA liked the location,” Flora said by way of explanation. “It was in good proximity to a major hub for Amazon (in Stockton). To have a community like Lockeford that is relatively rural, relatively open, not a lot of obstructions out there, it just seemed like a perfect fit.”

Flora added that he’s excited to have a front row seat for a potentially fundamental change in “how products move around.”

Amazon is promising to begin flying drones over people’s houses less than a year after some of them fell from the sky. Documents obtained by the Northwest News Network and OPB via a records request to the Federal Aviation Administration showed an uncrewed Amazon aircraft crashed during flight testing on an almost monthly basis between May 2021 and this past February. An Amazon spokesman said in an email the crashes involved a now-retired drone model, not the latest version to be used in California.

Amazon’s package delivery drone weighs about the same as a power lawnmower – about 85 pounds, according to the specs on file with the FAA. The autonomous flying machine has a hexagonal wing surrounding six electric motors and propellers. Amazon says the drone can deliver items weighing up to five pounds that are no larger than a shoebox.

Northwest News Network and OPB requested FAA incident reports on all unmanned aerial vehicle mishaps at the Pendleton test range since 2018. We identified 10 crashes serious enough to be reported to the federal government and nearly all of them involved Amazon’s package delivery drone.

In April, Bloomberg reported on some of the drone crashes in Pendleton. Current and former employees told reporters that Amazon prioritized speed over safety during the development process.

The increased scrutiny hasn’t slowed down business at the Pendleton UAS Range. Drone range manager Darryl Abling said the range is projecting 15,000 to 17,000 flights in 2022. That’s more than double 2021’s total.

Abling wouldn’t discuss Amazon or any other range users specifically. But he said the number of reported crashes are small compared to the number of test flights Pendleton hosts.

“It's a drop in the ocean,” he said. “With that many operations, you'd have to have a significant number of incidents even to hit a threshold of a tenth of a percent. The number is extremely low.”

Amazon spokesman Av Zammit reiterated in an email Monday that safety is his company’s top priority and that the drones are equipped with multiple safety features.

“We use a closed, private facility to test our systems up to their limits and beyond,” Zammit said. “With rigorous testing like this, we expect these types of events to occur, and we apply the learnings from each flight towards improving safety.”

Safety, flight hours and noise are among things on the minds of people in Lockeford who are in some cases still learning they’ll be on the cutting edge. That’s according to San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors Chair Chuck Winn, who observed a meeting of a municipal advisory council where the drone plan got its first public airing. Summarizing the audience’s mood, Winn said local residents are open to drone delivery if the FAA sets limits to maximize safety and minimize disturbance.

“I think they’re going to be very concerned in regards to the time that these drones will be flying, the locations, certainly the height and other things,” he said.

“Obviously there are questions,” Winn continued. “But I didn’t see an uproar or outrage in regards to this particular project.”

San Joaquin County spokeswoman Stephanie Yoder said the county only has jurisdiction over building remodeling and land use at the distribution warehouse site in this case. The FAA retains sole authority over flight operations and has informed the county that the delivery drone operation still needs various federal approvals and specific airspace authorization before it can commence.

Amazon hasn’t given a timeline for the real-world launch of one-hour delivery by drone in the U.S. other than to say it is coming “later this year” to the California town. Amazon Prime Air won’t be the first to market. Competitors such as Walmart, Google Wing and UPS are already in the air with limited drone delivery trials in Sun Belt states.

After Lockeford, similarly flat, fair weather and low density College Station, Texas, could be the next place to see Amazon’s drones in flight over neighborhoods, judging from the advanced permitting process underway there.

During a recent planning and zoning commission discussion in College Station, an Amazon representative described the “sense and avoid” sensor package on the delivery drones that allow them to avoid other flying objects as well as make sure backyard dropoff zones are clear.

Amazon said that its delivery drones would fly in daytime only and travel between locations at an altitude of around 400 feet. In both Lockeford and College Station, Amazon told local officials its battery-powered aircraft would operate within a four mile radius from the base station.
Copyright 2022 Northwest News Network. To see more, visit Northwest News Network.

Corrected: June 29, 2022 at 12:21 PM PDT
Corrected spelling of San Joaquin County spokeswoman Stephanie Yoder's name.
Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.
Antonio Sierra