A report from Bloomberg describes the obstacles hindering Amazon’s efforts to get its delivery drone program off the ground, citing high staff turnover and potential security risks.
According to Bloomberg, there were five crashes at the company’s test site in Pendleton, Oregon over the course of a four-month period. In May, a crash occurred after a drone lost its propeller, but Bloomberg says Amazon cleared the wreckage before the Federal Aviation Administration could examine it. Amazon spokesman Av Zammit disputed this, saying Amazon was following orders from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to document the event and move the drone.
The following month, a drone’s engine stopped when it switched from an upward flight path to flying straight ahead. Two safety devices – one to land the drone in these situations and another to stabilize the drone – both failed. As a result, the drone flipped upside down and fell from 160 feet into the air, triggering a wildfire that stretched across 25 acres. It was later extinguished by the local fire brigade.
“Instead of a controlled descent to a safe landing, [the drone] fell about 60 feet into an uncontrolled vertical fall and was consumed by fire,” the FAA said in a report of the incident obtained by Bloomberg†
Former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos first announced 30-minute drone deliveries in 2013, and nearly 10 years later, we still don’t have any drones delivering Amazon packages to our homes. In 2019, the company previewed a redesign of its Prime Air delivery drone that has the ability to fly vertically and hinted at launching drone deliveries later that year — a promise that went unfulfilled. A year later, Amazon announced FAA approval for the company to operate as a drone airline in 2020, which Amazon’s vice president of Prime Air said was “an important step forward for Prime Air.”
Last year, a wired report revealed that Amazon’s drone delivery operation is struggling just as much in the UK, despite the first-ever drone delivery near Cambridge in 2016. Wired report suggests the UK outfit is marred by some of the same issues described by Bloomberg, including a high turnover rate and potential safety issues. At a UK-based facility for analyzing drone images of people and animals, an employee reportedly drank beer while on the job, while wired another said to hold down the “approve” button on their computer, regardless of whether there were any hazards in the images or not.
In a statement to The edgeZammit said the NTSB never classified any of Amazon’s flight tests as an accident, as they did not cause injuries or endanger structures.
“Safety is our top priority,” Zammit said. “We use a closed, private facility to test our systems to the limit and beyond. With rigorous testing like this one, we expect events like this to happen, and we apply the lessons of each flight to improve safety. No one has ever been injured or injured as a result of these flights, and each test is conducted in accordance with all applicable regulations.”
Former and current Amazon employees also said: Bloomberg that the company is prioritizing the rushed rollout of its drone program over safety. Cheddi Skeete, a former drone project manager at Amazon, said he was fired last month for speaking to his manager about his security concerns. Skeete told Bloomberg that he was reluctant to continue testing a drone that had crashed five days earlier but was told the team had inspected 180 motors on 30 different drones – Skeete questioned this claim, as checking the motors was a is a cumbersome process, Bloomberg reports.
“We take safety reporting seriously – we have a safety reporting system that is well known to all our team members, and we encourage them to raise safety suggestions and concerns,” Zammit said. The edge† “In addition to using this system, we encourage employees to provide other feedback they have through their manager, HR, or our leadership team.”
David Johnson, a former drone flight assistant for Amazon, shared: Bloomberg that Amazon would sometimes run tests “without a full flight team” and with “inadequate equipment.” Johnson also said the company often assigns multiple roles to one person, a claim Bloomberg says is confirmed by two other former Amazon employees.
“They give people multiple things to do in a very short span of time to try and increase their numbers, and people cut back,” Johnson said. Bloomberg† “They were more concerned about pumping out flights and didn’t want to slow down.”
Zammit denied Johnson’s claims, stating, “Crew members are only assigned one role per flight. Before each flight test, the crew members are informed about their individual role,” explains Zammit. We set no time limits for completing any aspect of our flight testing, and our team can take the time to perform their duties safely.”
Correction Apr 11 7:28 PM ET: An earlier version of the article described a drone’s descent as “fiery” when it caught fire as it landed. We regret the mistake.
Update April 11, 7:28 PM ET: Added additional context around Amazon’s response to a drone crash and added an additional statement from Av Zammit.