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Here’s Amazon’s new transforming Prime Air delivery drone

The new drone can fly vertically, like a helicopter, and in a new, aerodynamic airplane mode
By James Vincent and Chaim Gartenberg 

Amazon has unveiled the latest version of its Prime Air delivery drone, a hybrid aircraft that’s capable of vertical takeoff and landing as well as sustained forward flight. The company says it wants to launch a delivery service using the drone in “the coming months,” but has not said where this might take place or how many customers it might cover.

Introducing the drone onstage at Amazon’s Re:MARS conference in Las Vegas, Amazon’s consumer worldwide CEO Jeff Wilke emphasized the aircraft’s safety features. “We know customers will only feel comfortable receiving drone deliveries if the system is incredibly safe,” said Wilke. Amazon says the drone’s safety features make it as “robust and stable as commercial aircraft” — a big claim for technology that is still very much in its infancy.

The new drone uses a combination of thermal cameras, depth cameras, and sonar to detect hazards. With the help of machine learning models, onboard computers can automatically identify obstacles and navigate around them. “From paragliders, power lines, to the corgi in your backyard, this drone has safety covered,” said Wilke.

The drone’s rotors are also fully covered for safety, with these covers serving as wings during sustained flight. The drone has six degrees of freedom (compared to four for a normal quadcopter), which Amazon says allows for more dynamic and nimble flight. A tilting design allows for the drone to use the same six propellers to fly forward as it does for take off and landing. Packages for delivery are then carried in the fuselage in the middle.

The company accompanied the announcement of the new drone with a test flight video, showing how the craft transforms in midair. Amazon claims its goal for the finished Prime Air service is create “fully electric drones that can fly up to 15 miles and deliver packages under five pounds to customers in less than 30 minutes.” This may sound like a small payload, but Amazon says 75 to 90 percent of purchased items are under that weight limit.

More significant than the specs, though, was Amazon’s vagueness about when, where, and how this technology will be made available to customers. Wilke told the audience at Re:MARS: “You’re going to see it delivering packages to customers in a matter of months.” But the company has not yet selected a location for this early service.

“Our objective is to have a certified commercial program that will allow us to deliver to customers, and that’s what we’re working towards in the coming months,” Wilke told reporters a press briefing.

Amazon’s Jeff Wilke shows off the new drone onstage at re:MARS.

Amazon is hoping to get FAA approval for the design though. As Wilke told Bloomberg, the entire drone is built either from FAA-approved parts or designed with approval in mind. “We’re not telling the FAA, hey, here is something new that you’ve never seen before,” he said. “We’re saying, this is an airplane that’s built to exacting aerospace standards.”

It’s worth remembering that Amazon doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to meeting its deadlines in this area. The company first announced plans for Prime Air all the way back in 2013, but soon ran into problems with logistics and regulations. Then in 2016, it said it had made its first successful drone delivery to a customer in Cambridge, England. But that proved to be a one-off stunt rather than the beginning of a regular service. Google’s rival Project Wing, meanwhile, has slowly been expanding a number of test services in locations including Finland and Australia.

If we’ve learned one thing about drone delivery in recent years, it’s that the implementation of these systems is much harder than simply building the aircraft. What Amazon has done today is unveil a drone and given itself another deadline. Now we need to see if it delivers.