Amazon has made multiple important announcements in 2020, and several of those stories have nothing to do with COVID-19. First, the retailer opened its first AI-powered, contactless grocery store in California. More recently, the retail giant received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to use drones for package delivery.
Approval means that Amazon can expand drone delivery service called Prime Air, which it has been working on since 2013, from its limited availability in more rural areas. Amazon has been testing drones that hover high enough to avoid buildings but low enough to avoid air traffic for several years. The fact that these are low-flying drones was crucial for Amazon to receive permission from the FAA to use drones for package delivery, but FAA approval is just one element required to make Prime Air viable. The process needs further streamlining to be viable at scale.
Although the concept of using drones for shipping isn’t exactly new, acquiring FAA approval puts Amazon one step closer to the goal of delivering to its customers via drone and two steps ahead of competitors that haven’t advanced beyond traditional trucking for delivery. The retailer hopes to shave off a day from its current two-day delivery promise to Prime subscriber via Prime Air to deliver small packages that weigh less than five pounds, which make up the majority of packages shipped by the retailer, within a 15-mile radius of its warehouses.
The autonomous drones are loaded with cargo at the warehouse, then rely on GPS to locate the home of the customer. Amazon customers should expect a phone call alerting them of the drone delivery window. This allows them to be outside to receive their deliveries. This is important because drones aren’t capable of delivering packages to specified locations such as inside doors or boxes or beneath porch coverings. After the dropoff, the drone returns to the warehouse in anticipation of its next delivery. The entire process may take less than 20 minutes for some deliveries.
Of course, not every person lives within 15 miles of an Amazon warehouse and not all packages are light enough to deliver by drone, and some customers may prefer traditional delivery options. These drones will not fully replace Amazon’s drivers or affiliate carriers. Instead, the drones will complement existing delivery methods. By reducing the need for trucks to deliver orders within 15 miles of the warehouses, Amazon can cut down on delivery time. Drones may promise a cost-savings to the company, as well. A drone can return to the warehouse and complete multiple trips per day, requiring only a recharge when its battery is low. Delivery vehicles, on the other hand, stick to set routes to preserve fuel.
It will take time before Amazon can scale up its drone delivery service, and the retailer may face stricter guidelines in areas with heavy air traffic. However, FAA approval shows that Amazon is serious about Prime Air and that drone delivery is viable.