Amazon’s Drone Delivery Dream Is Crashing

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It took nearly three hours to deliver the card game that morning. The marker was repositioned, the GPS was synced. The drone made a wobbly ascent and flew over the ground observer (referred to by the flight crew as a “crossing guard”), which was stationed in a truck on the road to meet FAA requirements of maintaining a visual line of sight on the drone. It hovered briefly over the target, then dropped the cardboard package from an altitude of about 10 feet.

The experience “was really disheartening,” the former employee says. “But it wasn’t unexpected. We had failures almost every day.”

Lockeford, a town of around 3,500 residents about 40 miles south of Sacramento, is built around light industrial shops, cherry orchards, nut farms, and strawberry fields. It was chosen as one of Amazon’s first two customer-delivery sites because, it’s flat an airport, and usually dry, according to a former employee involved in the selection process. (The other live commercial delivery site, in College Station, Texas, was picked for similar reasons, plus its proximity to Texas A&M, a university with a robust aerospace program.)

The first official customer for drone delivery in Lockeford signed up for the service after Amazon promoted it at his children’s school science fair in September 2022. He asked for anonymity for security reasons because of his job in criminal del justice. future: “And I’ll tell my kids, ‘You got the first Amazon drone delivery ever.’ Kind of cool bragging rights for them.”

Later that month, an Amazon representative paid a visit to his house on Taylor Ranch Road, a dead-end street that’s home to five houses. The rep surveyed the property—a 5-acre parcel with a swimming pool, trampoline, and chicken coop —to confirm the yard had the necessary air clearance (no overhanging tree limbs or power lines) and 10-foot clearance radius in which to install a metal stake, a plastic sheet emblazoned with an Amazon logo, and a landing pad with a QR- code-like fiducial marker that the drone would fly toward before lowering to make a drop. He signed a waiver requiring he and his family stay out of the backyard during scheduled delivery times. Once approved, he was sent an email with a link to a private Amazon landing page displaying items available for drone delivery: “Toothpaste, lots of condoms, things like that,” he says.

The man’s actual first deliveries—an Amazon Fire TV stick and pack of gum received earlier that fall—were unofficial, as Prime Air hadn’t gained FAA approval to fly drones commercially. And after the December card-game drop, he used the service once more to buy a refrigerator filter, which arrived in under an hour, as promised. Each time, a small fleet of Prime Air pickups with visual observers had shown up at his house to keep an eye on the drones. Deliveries are available Thursday to Monday, but not when there’s rain or strong wind, which have been constants in Lockeford this year.

Next door, retire Dan Zamarripa, another one of Prime Air’s first customers, says he’s used the service to buy batteries, moisturizing cream, and a toilet handle. The reason Zamarripa continues to use it seems to have less to do with the luxury of one -hour drone delivery, and more to do with the four $50 gift cards Amazon gave him—essentially free credits for drone delivery—and a personal quest to help “work out the bugs.” When Prime Air employees come to his house to observe the drones, he’s chatty with them, he says: “One time they made it in 58, 59 minutes, and I said, ‘You’re lucky I live down the street.'”

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