Amazon drone delivery officially live in California, Texas

It’s official. About half a year after it announced Lockeford, California, and College Station, Texas, as the inaugural locations for Amazon Prime Air drone delivery — and after nearly a decade of promises, innovations and setbacks — Amazon finally launched its commercial service last week.

David Carbon, vice president of Prime Air at Amazon, shared a LinkedIn post on Christmas Eve revealing the long-awaited news: “First deliveries from our new sites in TX and CA. Couldn’t be prouder of the amazing people that make up Prime Air. These are careful first steps that we will turn into giant leaps for our customers over the next number of years.”

Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) confirmed the service’s rollout to Fox affiliate KTXL in Texas, which covers Lockeford and wider San Joaquin County. Together, Lockeford and College Station have a combined population of nearly 125,000.

“Our aim is to safely introduce our drones to the skies. We are starting in these communities and will gradually expand deliveries to more customers over time,” Natalie Banke, an Amazon Prime Air spokesperson, told the media.

For the most part, Amazon has remained tight-lipped about the finer details of the new service. But it has made intermittent blog posts that provide the occasional insight. In the most recent update, it said its drones will deliver packages weighing less than 5 pounds to customers in under an hour. And to start, only Prime members will be eligible for deliveries in either city.

Amazon so far has worked directly with Prime account holders and city officials in Lockeford and College Station to gauge interest in the service and hear local stakeholders’ opinions about how it should be run.

But crucially, it also obtained a Part 135 air carrier certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. To get it, Amazon had to demonstrate a certain threshold of safety in its operations. And with it, the company is treated as an airline in the eyes of the FAA, allowing it to deliver commercially with drones. Amazon is one of a handful of companies with this approval.

Watch: Drones in The Backyard

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The other companies that have earned the certification, also known as a type certificate, are Alphabet’s drone delivery arm Wing, UPS’ Flight Forward, Zipline and most recently Matternet, which earlier this month became the first drone firm to also receive a production certification. That approval allows it to manufacture its type-certified drone in the U.S. without a waiver.

Indeed, Matternet is ahead of the pack from a regulatory standpoint and that sets it up to succeed commercially once the myriad of firms flying under FAA exemptions can no longer do so. 

Partner UPS, for example, has been flying beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of its pilots under an exemption called Section 44807, which is set to expire in September 2023. When it does, the only drone firms that will be able to support commercial BVLOS services like UPS’ will be those with type and production certificates.

As one of just five firms with a type certification, Amazon is on a trajectory toward becoming one of those valued drone delivery providers. However, it lacks the market share of key rivals, which could mean a more difficult path to obtaining the trust of retailers.

DroneUp, for instance, expanded into Florida, Texas and Arizona earlier this month and plans to grow its network to 4 million customers in 2023. Meanwhile, Wing has been flying commercially in Texas since April and recently signed a watershed delivery agreement with DoorDash to deliver orders in Australia.

Around the same time, though, Amazon unveiled a smaller, lighter, more durable drone that is slated to enter service in 2024. The new model promises increased range, a more compact design and a significant boost to durability, including the ability to fly in light rain. 

Carbon said that with the new design, Amazon expects to deliver 500 million packages per year by 2030 — an ambitious goal but one that shows the company’s high level of confidence in its product.

Click for more Modern Shipper articles by Jack Daleo.

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Editor: Jack Daleo