Amazon Unveils Its Latest Package Delivery Drone Prototype

The newest Prime Air drone leaves the ground vertically, then flies packages to their destinations on a traditional horizontal flight path.

Amazon Prime Air, package delivery, drones, FAA drone task force, UAS

Amazon has unveiled a new drone prototype aircraft for its still-in-development Prime Air package delivery system, this time with a model that takes off and lands vertically but flies on a horizontal flight path to its destination.

The company showed off its latest drone design in a 2 minute, 17 second video it posted on its Website on Nov. 29, highlighting a smooth vertical takeoff, a flight to drop off a package of soccer shoes to a consumer and then a vertical landing at the shopper's home. The video showed the package being released from an interior storage compartment in its fuselage and then being left behind as the drone took off vertically to return to Amazon's distribution center.

The drone design is a flat-looking flying machine with a triple rudder tail and three landing wheels. Its engine is mounted at the rear in the center of the vertical rudders.

Amazon's drone program is aimed at providing package deliveries of less than five pounds to consumers in less than 30 minutes in select locations. The drones will fly under 400 feet in altitude, have "sense and avoid" capabilities to stay away from aircraft and other obstacles, and be able to be operated up to distances of 10 miles or more, according to Amazon.

Amazon has been looking at drone deliveries as a way of offering faster service to customers while also saving money, compared with the more costly human-based delivery systems.

Amazon and a wide range of businesses, from agricultural companies to photographers, energy production companies, news operations and others, have been clamoring for the ability to use drones for several years, but have been prevented from doing so until the Federal Aviation Administration implements regulations to ensure their safe operation, according to earlier eWEEK stories. The companies have been arguing that delays in implementing drone rules in the United States have kept businesses from benefiting from cost savings and new revenue from their use.

The FAA has been working since 2012 to develop rules and procedures for the commercial use of drones in the United States. In June, an FAA spokesman said the agency is working to have drone regulations in place by mid-2016. Now, the agency has shortened that timeline, saying it will be next April or so. The regulations will govern drone flights and keep them safely away from commercial and private aircraft traffic as well as pedestrians and other hazards on the ground.

In October, the FAA announced the members of a drone task force that are making recommendations for creating drone registration rules in the United States, according to an earlier eWEEK report. The members of the task force include representatives of Google, Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart, and a wide range of aviation and other groups. The Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Registration Task Force is being co-chaired by Earl Lawrence, director of the FAA's UAS Integration Office, and Dave Vos of Google X.

The FAA had announced the creation of the task force on Oct. 19 as it works to deal with the growing problem of irresponsible drone use across the country. The task force members are charged with having a set of recommendations that would go into effect by mid-December 2015. One of the key goals of the registration requirement is to allow the FAA to be able to identify the owners and operators of unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace.

In July, Amazon proposed the use of specific sections of U.S. airspace for drone flights so that it could push forward with its plans to provide package delivery flights across the United States, eWEEK reported at the time. Amazon's idea is to designate airspace below 200 feet for drones that do surveying or inspections or take videos, while reserving airspace between 200 to 400 feet for delivery drones that are making their way over communities. Such a system would then connect drones as they are operating to an online network that would manage their flights in real time to keep them from harm's way. The airspace between 200 and 400 feet would allow drones to be flown autonomously, while being equipped with sophisticated sense-and-avoid technologies.

Walmart also recently began to seek permission from the FAA to test-fly package delivery drones outdoors in hopes that it can put together a method to zoom packages to consumers in the future. The company has applied to the FAA for approval of proposals to provide package home delivery, curbside pickup and warehouse inventory checking as it looks to find new ways of shipping purchases to consumers.