Amazon founder Jeff Bezos may have been able to fly into space, but it seems the company’s drone delivery system may never even get off the ground.
The Amazon Prime Air initiative debuted in 2016 as a way to provide customers with their orders within half an hour.
But five years later, the dream remains grounded as the tech giant laid off people in its pioneering British aviation team, as staff claim Prime Air is ‘dysfunctional’.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity to Wired, former employees of the UK team described a work environment in which managers were put in place to oversee the drone delivery project without any technological knowledge and people would drink at their desks due to a lack of motivation.
Eventually, more than 100 employees at the Cambridge office lost their jobs and dozens of others were moved to other projects, Wired reports, just months after the company laid off dozens of employees working on the project in the United States.
The Amazon Prime Air initiative debuted in 2016 as a way to provide customers with their orders within half an hour
According to videos posted on the company’s website, the drones would travel down an automated track at one of the company’s fulfillment centers before taking off
It would then travel as far as 15 miles to touch down in front of the customer’s front lawn
Amazon Prime Air was billed as a way for the company to deliver packages weighing less than five pounds within 30 minutes of a customer making an order.
People at an Amazon fulfillment center would process the order and package the shipment, before attaching it to a drone that would go down an automated track and rise into the sky, videos posted to the company’s website show.
The drones would then be able to travel 15 miles with the package, guided by a GPS, before descending on the customer’s front lawn with the product in tow.
Amazon debuted one of its new electronic delivery drone at its re:MARS conference in June 2019 that was capable of carrying products under five pounds to customers within a 15-mile radius within just half an hour.
Jeff Wilke, Amazon’s CEO of worldwide consumer, said at the time that the drone could be used by the company ‘within months’ to deliver packages.
By August of that year, the company submitted a petition for Federal Aviation approval of its plans, saying it would deliver packages in areas with low population density and would only carry products weighing five pounds or less, according to CNBC.
The FAA approved the company’s request to ‘safely and efficiently deliver packages to customers … beyond the visual line of sight of the operator’ just over a year ago.
‘This certification is an important step forward for Prime Air and indicates the FAAs confidence in Amazon’s operating and safety procedures for an autonomous drone delivery service that will one day deliver packages to our customers around the world,’ David Carbon, vice president of Prime Air, said in a statement following the announcement.
‘We will continue to develop and refine our technology to fully integrate delivery drones into the airspace and work closely with the FAA and other regulators around the world to realize our vision of 30-minute delivery.’
He added that the company was not yet ready to deploy its fleet, but has been ‘actively flying and testing the technology.’
Last November, Amazon Prime Air announced it had reached tentative deals with two external manufacturers, but also said it laid off dozens of its staff members working in research and development and manufacturing on the project in the U.S.
‘We are reorganizing one small team within our larger Prime Air organization to allow us to best align with the needs of our customers and the business,’ Amazon spokeswoman Kristen Kish said in a statement to Reuters.
She added that the company was working to find roles for the affected employees ‘in the areas where we are hiring.’
Jeff Wilke, Amazon’s CEO of worldwide consumer, debuted one of its new electronic delivery drone at its re:MARS conference in June 2019 and said that the drone could be used by the company ‘within months’ to deliver packages
People at the warehouses would pack up the boxes and attach it to the drones
Across the pond, the situation seems to have been more dire, with Wired reporting that more than 100 employees at Amazon Prime Air losing their jobs and dozen more being moved to other projects.
The company had been working on drones in the U.K. since 2016, when it made a spectacle across the country, releasing promotional videos that received millions of views, offering local schools a tour of its drone lab and opening a new office in Cambridge.
It was so popular, Wired reports, that U.K. regulators fast-tracked approvals for drone testing.
But former employees at the company said the project has been ‘collapsing inwards,’ ‘dysfunctional,’ and ‘resembled organized chaos,’ run by managers who were ‘detached from reality.’
The managers who were appointed to oversee the project were often longtime Amazon employees who specialized in logistics and warehouse operations and had little to no knowledge of the technology done on the project that they couldn’t answer basic questions, the former employees said, adding they had to train their replacements in Costa Rica.
Amazon opened a new office in Cambridge in preparation for its drone delivery system
Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos was able to travel into space last month
The problems reportedly began in late 2019, when the drone team was broken into three divisions that analyzed footage for different threats: humans and animals, other man-made objects in the sky, and 3D mapping – which would help drones know where someone’s lawn is located.
The company began to hire many people for its data analysis team, which was tasked with manually going through test flight footage and identifying relevant threats or objects, Wired reports, but there was frequent turnover.
Employees also said they would often be told to do two opposing things.
And the teams dealt with some technological difficulties, as they were trying to build drones that would land outside people’s homes, but the systems required to do so were heavy, and a heavier weight for a drone came with more regulations in the U.K., including higher safety requirements to protect people on the ground from potential collisions.
In February 2020, Wired reports, the entire human and animals data analysis team, which employed dozens of people, was shuttered and reassigned, just to reopen three months later with new staff.
At around the same time, the former employees said, the company began restructuring, and managers told them that they were no longer guaranteed permanent positions – further hindering morale.
Afterwards, employees said, one person opened a beer at his desk at around 11 a.m. or 12 p.m., and another person charged with sifting through the footage for possible problems started approving all of the frames even if there were hazards in them.
‘Everything started collapsing because they piled too much on, they put people in charge who didn’t now anything about the project and they oversold,’ one of the former employees said.
‘It’s all one gigantic oversell – just so many promises that can’t be kept.’
An Amazon spokesperson told Wired it still has people working for Prime Air in the U.K., but refused to confirm how many employees there are.
He also said the company has ‘rigorous procedures in place’ to check employees’ work and that ‘swift action’ was taken in any cases of misconduct.