Amazon; Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters; Samantha Lee/Business Insider
- Amazon said last June that its Prime Air drone delivery service would launch “within” months.
- It’s been 12 months since that announcement and Prime Air still hasn’t launched.
- Business Insider spoke with over a dozen current and former employees to find out what’s been going on within the team.
- Employees say the Prime Air team has struggled with years of internal conflict, lack of focus, and regulatory issues.
- David Carbon, a former Boeing executive who took over Prime Air in March, is taking steps to turn the team into a more mature business-focused entity that’s closely aligned with the broader retail team.
- Do you work at Amazon? Contact Eugene Kim via encrypted messaging app Signal (+1 415 926 2066) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Last June, when Amazon said its Prime Air drone delivery program would launch “within months,” some people inside the company laughed, baffled by what struck them as an absurdly premature pronouncement.
The newly re-designed drones needed more testing. The service wasn’t fully integrated with Amazon’s warehouses. Regulatory hurdles remained.
Fast forward 12 months, and Amazon’s drone delivery service is still nowhere to be found.
A management shake-up has brought a new boss to the group, tasked with getting the drones in the air as soon as possible, and the pressure has mounted as rival efforts from Google-parent Alphabet and UPS threaten to leave Prime Air in the dust.
An internal timeline seen by Business Insider indicates that a launch date is now set for August 31. But people close to the program say whatever drone service Amazon is able to launch in the near term will amount to little more than a glorified trial in a controlled and extremely limited area.
Nearly seven years after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos appeared on the “60 Minutes” TV program and revealed an ambitious vision to revolutionize home deliveries — a fleet of flying drones that deposit packages on consumers’ doorsteps — progress has been bumpy and the end result still uncertain.
Amazon insiders say the company has developed strong drone technology. But they acknowledge that the Prime Air team has struggled to find a clear direction, hampered by years of internal conflict, lack of focus, and ongoing regulatory obstacles. And while the coronavirus pandemic has shown the value of contactless home deliveries, it’s not clear that Amazon’s delivery drones will become a common sight, rather than just a flashy marketing vehicle, in city skies anytime soon.
Business Insider spoke to more than a dozen current and former Amazon employees close to the company’s drone program to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the futuristic project.
In an email statement to Business Insider, Amazon’s VP of Robotics Brad Porter said Prime Air “continues to make great strides” towards the official launch.
“We recognize the only solution worth launching is one that is incredibly safe and we continue to partner closely with the FAA in that mission,” he said. “We are excited that David Carbon has joined us in this endeavor; his experience will be invaluable to the team as we move to the next phase,” Porter said, referring to the new head of Prime Air, David Carbon.
A Boeing vet is now in the pilot’s seat
A former Boeing executive, Carbon joined Amazon three months ago and has moved swiftly to transform Prime Air from an isolated research lab into a more business-driven group closely aligned with the broader retail organization. In an internal email obtained by Business Insider, Carbon described efforts to evolve from “an R&D posture to a structured Aerospace Program” with a detailed schedule for group goals and quarterly business reviews spanning the group’s worldwide operations team.
“These efforts have been extremely beneficial with helping us understand our achievements, where we need to go, and what gaps remain,” Carbon wrote in an email obtained by Business Insider.
Prime Air is designed to deliver packages under five pounds — which account for 85% of the products sold on Amazon — in 30 minutes or less using fully electric drones that can fly up to 15 miles. Amazon has invested extensively in the program since 2013, building up a team of almost 1,000 employees spread across five countries, including the US, the UK, France, Austria, and Israel.
The addition of Carbon follows a series of executive turnover within Prime Air.
In March, Prime Air’s longtime leader Gur Kimchi announced he was moving to a different role within Amazon. Kimchi’s resignation came as a surprise, as he had served as the de facto face of the team since its inception in 2013.
People close to the team say Kimchi was pushed out after failing to move faster with Prime Air’s launch. Kimchi currently has zero direct reports and recently took a leave of absence.
While Kimchi’s technical acumen was instrumental to Prime Air’s development so far, he’s had a reputation of failing to prioritize, often spending time on less urgent matters. One person described him as a “mad scientist,” someone with brilliant creativity but a weakness in executing those ideas.
For example, he would take overseas business trips to recruit acoustics experts who could help build an advanced type of noise-reducing propeller, when others were fretting about more important regulatory issues, this person said.
His replacement, Carbon, is a longtime Boeing vet with experience in aircraft manufacturing and assembly. Carbon’s appointment reflects the company’s desire to bring in a more professional aerospace operator, although he’s had his own issues over allegations of poor management at the 787 Dreamliner factory he used to run, according to the New York Times.
The leadership change was driven by Dave Clark, Amazon’s operations chief who assumed oversight of Prime Air late last year. Clark, who is known for being a demanding leader, has put more pressure on the Prime Air team to show immediate results, people say. The team has now pulled back from longer term projects, like building special material that could drop the drone’s weight, and is laser-focused on getting the service up and running as soon as possible.
Kimchi is not the only high-level executive departure. Paul Viola, Prime Air’s VP of Science, left in February, after nearly 6 years there. Paul Ryder, another VP who had joined the team in 2017, left after just 18 months to retire.
Other changes point to a more disciplined approach as well.
In recent months, Prime Air engineers were asked to join a special 2-day training session for software certification, run by Patmos Engineering Services, a consulting firm that helps companies with the FAA certifying process. The team has also updated its internal oversight boards, including groups that formally review device failure reports and drone configuration changes. Meanwhile, Amazon has started manufacturing some of the drones at one of its own warehouses in Sumner, a city 30 miles south of Seattle.
These efforts could lead to an imminent launch. According to an internal timeline seen by Business Insider, Prime Air has tentatively set its commercial launch for August 31. Although the first official delivery could get delayed again, it would take place in a more controlled environment to customers who live in an area where Amazon is approved to fly, people said.
Internal turbulence between teams
Some employees are frustrated by the pullback from research and development. They say Clark’s focus on the near-term goals could be detrimental to the team’s long-term prospects. Carbon recently tried to allay some of those concerns, according to a May 31 email seen by Business Insider. Saying he’s received a lot of questions about “our path forward,” Carbon assured the team will “continue to change the world through homegrown innovation in science, technology and product development.”
“While today we are still working through many of the details associated with our service launch and how we will structure to achieve it, we will not stop or reduce our focus on research, science, development, and product design,” Carbon wrote.
Some employees say Amazon could have moved faster if it weren’t for other deep-rooted problems within Prime Air.
Tension between Amazon’s homegrown talent and the newly hired aviation-background employees was a constant source of conflict. For example, Amazon engineers like to iterate and make quick changes along the way as they find bugs in the system. But that’s not how it’s done in the traditional aviation space, where you have to follow a more structured, regulated process before making any changes. The difference has led to a delayed FAA approval process.
On top of that, Amazon’s traditional mindset of solving hard problems first often clashed with the aviation side’s simple yet stable approach. Amazon’s drone design was a frequent point of contention. Aviation people preferred a more traditional design adopted by other companies because there’s more data and reference points that could be used during the FAA certification process. But Amazon leaders wanted the unconventional design because of the advanced features, like energy efficiency and better controls, even if that meant more time to develop. That attitude resulted in Amazon’s latest drone model — a unique, hexagonal-shaped vehicle surrounded by a six-sided shroud.
“That tension internally created an infectious environment,” one former employee said.
JORDAN STEAD/ Amazon
They used fake team names, like “Project Venice,” when asked about their affiliation
The Prime Air team has long maintained a startup-like environment that keeps a cultural distance and secrecy from Amazon’s corporate headquarters.
The team uses a separate backend system and passwords for internal documents. Employees get a black shield to cover their company ID cards. And they are not allowed to say the exact address of their office, located in a nondescript building in the greater Seattle area with no signage and frost glass windows. It wasn’t until a couple years ago that Amazon painted the Prime Air office’s walls with its famous leadership principles to infuse that part of the company’s culture.
The team’s secretive culture made it hard to run flying tests outside to collect real-world data, delaying the overall development process. These tests usually took place in the backyards of Amazon employees who volunteered, but they were frequently interrupted by law enforcement who showed up because of neighbors suspicious about the testing. Since employees were not allowed to tell who they worked for, they often had to use fake team names, like “Project Venice,” when asked about their affiliation.
The detachment from the main office may have contributed to its loose work culture. Engineers would often go through a second half push to produce tangible results just so they could show them to leadership. It’s why most of the demo videos produced by Prime Air were released in December. The 2016 demo of Amazon’s first drone delivery in the UK, in fact, was hacked together in the last minute, using a drone model that the team knew wouldn’t be used in the actual commercial launch, people familiar with the project said. That drone vehicle was so memorable that internally it was dubbed the “flying lawnmower” for its unusual appearance. They also timed the video release in December to create buzz around Amazon’s brand ahead of the shopping season.
“It was all a big PR thing,” one person said, referring to the 2016 video. “There was always a year-end push to meet the goals which ended up burning people out.”
Prime Air’s single biggest obstacle to launch remains regulatory issues.
Every commercial drone delivery service in the US needs permission by the FAA. That approval comes with a bunch of different restrictions, but the two most important requirements are having “line-of-sight,” or eyes on the ground at all times when the drone is flying, and not flying over crowds. For a company like Amazon, which delivers billions of packages per year, it’s nearly impossible to launch a drone service that meets those requirements.
Some companies, like UPS and Alphabet-subsidiary Wing, have recently been granted a waiver from some of those restrictions to launch limited drone delivery services. But the FAA approval process can take months, if not years, since companies have to submit all kinds of data and documentation to prove their technology, according to Reese Mozer, CEO of American Robotics, a drone software company that helps collect industrial data. Every new update to the design or overall system could further delay that process, especially since the FAA is also learning about the nascent industry, he said.
“This is the new frontier,” Mozer said. “There is no company in the world that has been approved to deliver things on a routine basis beyond the line-of-sight and fly autonomously all over the country.”
In July, Amazon formally requested an FAA approval to run commercial drone deliveries in the US, and asked for several waivers, including the ability to fly beyond the visual-line-of-sight. In the 29-page letter, Amazon described its service in detail, saying it would take a “crawl, walk, run” approach by first launching on a smaller scale.
“Prime Air will field its operations in a measured and iterative way, starting initially with flights over select sparsely populated areas and expanding as our proficiency develops,” Amazon wrote in the letter.
In response, the FAA raised a number of questions around Amazon’s safety measures and data policies.
It’s unclear where Amazon’s approval process stands now. But Amazon continues to work closely with the FAA, and its latest drone model has been flying every day on an FAA-designated public range to generate the required data, people say.
Through all the trials and tribulations, Bezos has remained one of Prime Air’s biggest supporters.
But his patience may be wearing thin.
At last year’s internal all-hands meeting, Bezos was asked by an employee when he expected to see Amazon packages delivered by drones, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Business Insider.
For the answer, Bezos turned to Jeff Wilke, the retail chief who at the time was in charge of Prime Air, after saying, with a long, emphatic laugh, “By the way, I might have submitted this question.”
Wilke said he didn’t have anything to share, only adding to say that he’s “optimistic” as the team is “working hard on the regulatory and technology constraints in parallel.”
As Wilke started to walk off stage, Bezos followed up with a frowning expression.