Bloomberg has published a detailed report on the obstacles to the launch of Amazon’s drone delivery program, from high turnover rates to potential security risks.
In four months, five accidents have occurred at Amazon’s drone delivery testing facility in Pendleton, Oregon. One accident last May occurred after a drone lost its propeller, but according to a Bloomberg report, Amazon cleaned up the wreckage before the Federal Aviation Administration could investigate the incident. Av Zammit, an Amazon spokesperson, disputed this, claiming that Amazon followed the order from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to document the incident and remove the drone.
The following month, the engine of a drone stalled when it switched from an upward flight path to a straight forward flight. Two safety features that would have stabilized and landed the drone in such a situation also failed. As a result, the small aircraft turned upside down and crashed from a height of more than 50 metres, causing a bushfire on 25 hectares that was extinguished by the local fire brigade.
Jeff Bezos, former Amazon CEO, first announced 30-minute drone deliveries in 2013, and almost 10 years later, there are still no drones flying Amazon packages to our doorstep. In 2019, the company previewed a redesigned version of its Prime Air delivery drone that can fly vertically, and hinted at launching drone deliveries later that year. However, this promise was not fulfilled. A year later, Amazon announced that the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had cleared the company to operate as a drone airline in 2020, which Amazon’s vice president of Prime Air called an important step forward for the company.
A report in Wired last year revealed that Amazon’s drone delivery operation is facing similar difficulties in the UK, despite having made its first drone delivery near Cambridge in 2016. The magazine reported that the UK unit is experiencing the same problems as those described by Bloomberg, including high turnover rates and potential safety issues. At the British facility, which analyses drone footage of people and animals, one worker reportedly drank beer while working, while another hit the “approve” button on his computer, whether or not the footage showed any hazards, according to Wired.
In a statement to The Verge, Zammit explained that the NTSB has never classified any of Amazon’s flight tests as accidents, as they did not result in injuries or endanger structures.
“Safety is our top priority. We use a closed, private facility to test our systems to the limits and beyond. With such rigorous testing, we expect these types of incidents to occur, and we use the lessons learned from each flight to improve safety. No one has ever been injured or harmed as a result of these flights and we conduct each test in compliance with all applicable regulations,” said Zammit.
Former and current Amazon employees also told Bloomberg that the company is prioritizing safety over the hasty rollout of its drone program. Cheddi Skeete, Amazon’s former drone project manager, said he was fired last month for talking to his manager about his safety concerns. Skeete told Bloomberg that he was reluctant to continue testing a drone that had crashed five days earlier, but was told that the team had checked 180 engines of 30 different drones. Skeete doubted that claim because checking the engines is a cumbersome process, Bloomberg reports.
“We take safety reports seriously – we have a safety reporting system that all our team members are familiar with and we encourage them to report any safety suggestions or concerns. In addition to using the system, we encourage employees to provide any other feedback they have through their manager, HR or our leadership team,” Zammit told The Verge.
David Johnson, a former Amazon drone flight assistant, spoke to Bloomberg about how Amazon sometimes conducts tests “without a full flight team” and with “inadequate equipment”. Johnson also said that the company often assigned multiple roles to one person, a claim confirmed by two other former Amazon employees, according to Bloomberg.
Zammit denied Johnson’s claims, stating, “Crew members are assigned only one task per flight. Before each flight test, crew members are briefed on their individual roles,” the spokesperson explained. We do not impose time limits on the completion of any aspect of the flight tests and our team can complete their tasks with peace of mind.