A first look at Amazon’s new delivery drone, slated to start deliveries this year
Amazon previews its new delivery drone, the MK30
Image Credits: Amazon
Following this morning’s debut of the Sparrow bin-picking robot, Amazon just unveiled MK30, the latest iteration of its delivery drone. The system is the successor to the MK27-2, which is set to debut limited deliveries to residents in Lockeford, California and College Station, Texas. The MK30, which is set for a 2024 debut, is both smaller and lighter than the earlier version and able to withstand harsher temperatures and a broader range of weather conditions. Another key element here is making things quieter. Drone noise has been one of the most anticipated complaints about bringing these systems into residential settings. The system maintains the same basic hexacopter foundation as its predecessor — a different tack than the fixed-wing systems deployed by the likes of Wing.
Reducing the noise signature of our drones is an important engineering challenge our team is working on. Our drones fly hundreds of feet in the air, well above people and structures. Even when they descend to deliver packages, our drones are generally quieter than a range of sounds you would commonly hear in a typical neighborhood. Prime Air’s Flight Science team has created new custom-designed propellers that will reduce the MK30’s perceived noise by a further 25%. That’s a game-changer we’re very excited about.
Also on-board are new safety systems designed to avoid a wide range of different obstacles, from fellow drones to trees to people and pets. “While it’s impossible to eliminate all risks from flying, we take a proven aerospace approach to design safety into our system,” the company writes. “As always, our newest drone will go through rigorous evaluation by national aerospace authorities like the Federal Aviation Administration to prove its safety and reliability.”
The acknowledgement of risk is important here. The truth is as these things become more common, so too, will accident reports. Amazon’s delivery drones have been through their share of ups and downs (so to speak), but the program appears to have survived some wide ranging cuts from CEO Andy Jassy — the same may not apply to the company’s last-mile Scout delivery robot, however.
“[T]o sustainably deliver a vast selection of items in under an hour, and eventually within 30 minutes, at scale,” Amazon writes, “drones are the most effective path to success.” Plenty of skepticism remains around the efficacy of such programs, of course. Amazon, however, isn’t alone in betting big on drone delivery — one baby step at a time. Alphabet’s Wing program recently announced a deal with DoorDash for food deliveries in Logan, Australia. Amazon Prime Air VP David Carbon discussed the company’s ambitions thusly at today’s event:
A demonstrated, targeted level of safety that is validated by regulators and a magnitude safer than driving to the store. Delivering 500 million packages by drone, annual by the end of this decade. Servicing millions of customers, operating in highly populated, suburban areas such as Seattle, Boston and Atlanta. Flying in an uncontrolled space autonomously.
The latest drone model will drop packages from 12 feet in the air.
The drone is about five-and-a-half feet in diameter and weighs 80 pounds, according to Hendrickson. It can only carry packages weighing less than five pounds, and deliveries must fit in one box about the size of a shoe box. The box is loaded into the back and secured inside, then the drone takes off vertically, similar to a helicopter, using six propellers. Once in the air, it rotates into a forward position and the hexagon surrounding the drone serves as its wings. Hendrickson said it flies at about 50mph. Once at the delivery location, it descends vertically, scans the area to make sure it’s clear, then drops the box from a hover 12 feet above the ground. The drone can fly 12 kilometers roundtrip, and is fully autonomous. The drone needs ample clear space beneath it to drop the box. Amazon says thousands of items are eligible for drone delivery, a small percentage of the vast assortment available on its marketplace. “We’ve made sure that all of those products are both capable of being okay when they are delivered, and our packaging, which is displayed behind me as well, is a special packaging that ensures that the integrity of the product is still intact after the delivery,” Hendrickson said. Prime Air has been slow-going since it started testing in 2013. It made a single drone delivery in 2016 but has reportedly hit major setbacks since, such as high turnover and crashes. It reached a key milestone in August 2020 when the Federal Aviation Administration gave Amazon approval to operate the drones. On Thursday, Amazon also announced the next model, the MK30, which it says will launch in 2024. Amazon says the MK30 is smaller, will be 25% less noisy than the MK27-2, and will be able to fly in light rain.