FLYING Magazine

Amazon’s drone delivery venture, which so far has fallen short of ex-CEO Jeff Bezos’ vision of nationwide ubiquity, this week delivered a positive update.

Amazon Prime Air on Thursday said it obtained FAA approval for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone operations, which refer to flights that cannot be directly observed by a human pilot. The company said its new permissions will allow it to immediately expand the delivery area for its MK-27 drone in College Station, Texas, one of two U.S. locations in which it began flying in 2022. Its other service, in Lockeford, California, was shut down in April.

As things stand, BVLOS authorization is considered the king of drone delivery approvals.

In lieu of a final rule on BVLOS flights—which the FAA has been developing for years but has not yet published—the agency awards temporary waivers to individual companies on a case-by-case basis. Some exemptions, called summary grants, allow a firm to piggyback off an approval given to another company if their technologies and business models are sufficiently aligned.

For those without BVLOS waivers, drone delivery areas are often limited to just a few square miles and require human observers, which can put a strain on operations.

Amazon said Prime Air engineers developed a BVLOS strategy that includes an onboard detect-and-avoid (DAA) system, which allows the company’s drones to autonomously dodge planes, helicopters, balloons, and other obstacles.

It shared with the FAA information about the system’s design, operation, and maintenance and conducted flight demonstrations in front of agency inspectors. After observing the technology in action and poring over test data, the regulator issued the approval.

Now, in lieu of human observers, remote drone pilots will oversee the aircraft while Prime Air DAA performs most of the work.

Amazon, which already dominates same- and next-day ground delivery, hopes to deliver 500 million packages per year by drone before the end of the decade. However, the company has been reluctant to provide delivery figures since it came out last year that its Lockeford service had completed just 100 deliveries after several months of availability.

This new exemption could change things. Prime Air in 2020 obtained an FAA Part 135 Air Carrier Certificate, making it one of only five drone delivery companies to have obtained that approval. But a BVLOS waiver may allow it to truly compete with rivals such as Wing and Zipline, both of which received such permissions last year.

The company will start by ramping up in College Station. Later this year, it expects to begin deploying drones from hubs next to its same-day delivery site in Tolleson, Arizona, which is slated to be its next launch market. The idea is to be able to fulfill, sort, and deliver from a single location, strategically positioned to be as close to as many customers as possible.

Connections to nearby Amazon fulfillment centers will allow it to offer millions of items for same-day drone delivery, the company says. It has over 100 such facilities spread across the U.S. and more than 175 globally.

Next up for Prime Air will be adding further U.S. locations in 2025. The company is also planning an international expansion to the U.K. and Italy, where its drones will deliver from those larger fulfillment centers. It said it is working with regulators in both countries to introduce the service as soon as late 2024.

Simultaneously, Prime Air continues to hone the design of its new MK-30 drone, which will eventually replace the MK-27 in the U.S. and be the first Amazon drone flown in the U.K. and Italy. According to Amazon, it can fly twice as far as the company’s current model while emitting half as much perceived noise.

Prime Air’s chief competitor is Alphabet drone delivery subsidiary Wing, which as of May has completed more than 350,000 deliveries worldwide—including in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in partnership with Walmart and Walgreens.

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The post Amazon Prime Air Secures Key FAA Drone Delivery Approval appeared first on FLYING Magazine.

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