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Jeff Wilke shows off Amazon’s Prime Air drone during a reveal event in Las Vegas in 2019. Picture: JOE BUGLEWICZ/BLOOMBERG
Jeff Wilke shows off Amazon’s Prime Air drone during a reveal event in Las Vegas in 2019. Picture: JOE BUGLEWICZ/BLOOMBERG

Jeff Bezos went on 60 Minutes in 2013 and pledged to fill the skies with a fleet of delivery drones that could zip parcels to customers’ homes in 30 minutes. Asked when this future would arrive, the Amazon.com founder said he expected drone deliveries to start in the next five years or thereabouts.

Almost a decade later, despite spending more than $2bn and assembling a team of more than 1,000 people around the world, Amazon is a long way from launching a drone delivery service. 

A Bloomberg investigation based on internal documents, government reports and interviews with 13 current and former employees reveals a programme beset by technical challenges, high turnover and safety concerns. A serious crash in June prompted federal regulators to question the drone’s airworthiness because multiple safety features failed and the machine careened out of control, causing a brush fire. While experimental aircraft are expected to crash during test flights, current and former employees say pressure to get the programme back on track has prompted some managers to take unnecessary risks that have put personnel in harm’s way.

“With rigorous testing like this, we expect these types of events to occur, and we apply the learnings from each flight towards improving safety,” Amazon spokesperson Av Zammit said in an emailed statement. “No-one has ever been injured or harmed as a result of these flights, and each test is done in compliance with all applicable regulations.”

Amazon plans to ramp up testing in the coming months. Having missed a goal of conducting 2,500 test flights last year, the company has set an even loftier target of 12,000 for 2022 — although fewer than 200 had been completed as of late February. The company plans to add new testing locations this year and also hopes to start testing drones beyond the sight of flight observers, a key step towards proving their ability to fly autonomously.

Flying robots appeal to online retailers because of their speed of delivery ... and they offset one of the biggest costs of e-commerce: paying someone to drive packages to homes.

It will be years before the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approves commercial drone deliveries, although the agency is letting companies conduct test flights in increasingly populated areas so long as they do not pose significant safety risks. But the prospect of replacing human drivers with flying robots appeals to online retailers because 30-minute shipping is expected to become standard for certain deliveries, such as medicine, snacks and baby products.

Amazon drones could fan out up to 12km from a delivery station, breezing above traffic to deliver packages weighing as much as 2.3kg within half an hour of a customer clicking “buy”. The speed would finally make ordering from Amazon as quick as a trip to the store and help offset one of the biggest costs of e-commerce: paying someone to drive packages to homes.

The Seattle-based company is under growing pressure to keep up with deep-pocketed rivals. Just last week, Alphabet’s Google Wing accelerated its own drone testing programme by starting to ferry packages to shoppers from Walgreens in a 250km2 suburban area north of Dallas. Walmart and United Parcel Service have their own drone programmes in varying stages of development. 

Even Amazon’s toughest internal critics do not question the technology’s potential, but current and former employees say the company is doing what it has done so many times before: putting speed before safety in the name of beating the competition.

“Someone is going to have to get killed or maimed for them to take these safety issues seriously,” said Cheddi Skeete, a former Amazon drone project manager who says he was fired last month for raising concerns to his managers. “How can we bring these tests to more communities when we know we have problems?”  Spokesperson Zammit denied Skeete was terminated for speaking up.

The FAA declined to comment on the crashes, but said its testing requirements were designed to protect the public. “Flight testing is a critical part of all aircraft certification projects,” the agency said. “FAA flight-testing approvals contain provisions to ensure it occurs safely, without posing a hazard to people, property or other aircraft.”

Wing

Payload: up to 1.2kg. Max cruising speed: 104.4km/h. The pitch: A fixed-wing aircraft that uses vertically orientated propellers to hover over its target, lowering a payload to the ground with a retractable tether. Track record: Wing, which does most of its testing in Australia, also runs pilot delivery projects in the US and Europe, and claims more than 200,000 commercial deliveries. 

In 2013, Amazon tapped aviation buff and software engineer Gur Kimchi to run its nascent drone programme, now known as Prime Air. Designing delivery drones promised to be a heavy lift — and Amazon made the challenge all the harder by opting to create a completely new machine itself rather than farming out pieces of the design and building of prototypes to other companies.

Kimchi favoured a do-it-yourself approach because doing so gave the team control over the final design, but former and current employees said the decision slowed development. For example, personnel wound copper wire around electric motor magnets themselves when an outside vendor could have done it faster. Even the prototypes were built in-house by hand.

The machines Bezos revealed on 60 Minutes resembled something you might see in a local park and simply weren’t up to the task; they could barely fly a mile and got tossed around in wind gusts. Amazon wanted a drone that blended the ability of a plane to fly long distances with the manoeuvrability of a helicopter that can swiftly change direction to avoid trees and power lines and hover over a backyard during inclement weather. The drones also needed to fly and find their destination with no human intervention.

Amazon’s Prime Air

Payload: up to 2.3kg Max cruising speed: 111km/h The pitch: Amazon staked its claim in drones back in 2013, promising 30-minute delivery from its warehouses as soon as the technology and regulatory framework were ready. Track record: Amazon’s aircraft have gone through major changes, evolving from a quadcopter to a hybrid craft that can take off vertically and fly like a plane before descending again at its destination. It is still in testing, including at a drone range in eastern Oregon.

The team went through more than two dozen concepts. The work was tedious and slow. The drones required new software that would allow on-board cameras to recognise and react to obstacles and differentiate between things like swimming pools and driveways.

The team ultimately settled on a large 38kg drone because they wanted it to be capable of carrying a 12kg parcel — a payload that covers about 85% of the packages Amazon delivers. Extending the range as much as possible was key because every extra kilometre meant the drone could serve a larger population. Bezos was patient with the team so long as it meant creating a superior machine, according to a senior executive familiar with the programme.

Kimchi took safety seriously and gave his team time to fix defects rather than rushing them, according to people who worked for him. Information was shared freely, and employees were allowed to watch video of crashes to assess what went wrong. “The Prime Air group had a pretty strong safety culture,” said one former employee, who requested anonymity to discuss internal matters without authorisation. “I remember even just the software meetings, we always had to open our meetings with someone volunteering a safety tip. They definitely weren’t playing fast and loose.”

UPS and Matternet M2

Payload: up to 2kg Max cruising speed: 72km/h The pitch: UPS and its Flight Forward division hope to acquire a fleet of massive, electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft that will be piloted at first, but could later operate as drones to ferry packages between sorting hubs. For last-mile delivery, the courier has relied on much smaller quadcopters that operate in a confined areas like a hospital campus. Track record: UPS in 2019 became the first company to receive FAA approval to operate a drone airline, using Matternet’s M2 drones to deliver at select hospital, university and retirement community campuses. 

Yet as the team struggled to get the drone’s various components working seamlessly together, one deadline after another came and went, according to a former employee. Jeff Wilke, who then ran Amazon’s consumer division, wanted to demonstrate the drone at a 2019 tech conference and announce that deliveries would begin by the end of that year. During a meeting with the drone team, he shared the goal to make sure everyone was on the same page. Employees knew the timing was unrealistic but dared not challenge him, according to people who were there.

Wilke showed off the drone at a Las Vegas hotel, playing video of it operating and touting the potential upsides for customers. He did not provide a date for the start of deliveries, saying they would begin in “months”. Several employees watching the presentation recall thinking Kimchi would not be around much longer. The following year, the drone programme became part of Amazon’s operations team, another sign executives wanted to move things along, and Kimchi was out as the boss. He left Amazon later that year. 

In March 2020, Amazon hired David Carbon to run the drone programme. The Boeing veteran arrived with baggage. A New York Times investigation had previously revealed that a Boeing 787 factory that Carbon ran in South Carolina tended to value production over safety. Several employees told the newspaper they had been retaliated against for raising safety concerns. Though the problems predated Carbon’s arrival, they continued on his watch, the Times reported. Boeing executives defended the plant’s commitment to safety, but a month later Carbon was on his way out.

Zipline

Payload: up to 1.8kg Max cruising speed: 103 km/h The pitch: Catapult-launched fixed-wing drones, made by Zipline International, fly to their destination like an aeroplane and release packages that descend by parachute. Track record: Zipline, which got its start delivering medical supplies to rural clinics, says it has completed hundreds of thousands of commercial deliveries, and is working on a package delivery pilot with Walmart in Arkansas. Walmart has also conducted delivery trials with DroneUp and Flytrex, which operate quadcopter-style drone models.

Source: Bloomberg reporting, Federal Aviation Administration, the companies 

When Amazon announced his hiring internally the next year, an interim director of the drone programme told the team not to believe everything they read in the press, according to current and former employees. That did not stop them from googling Carbon on their smartphones during the meeting.

Still, these people acknowledge that Carbon brought discipline and focus to the programme. His long industry experience helped accelerate development and he began farming out some drone production. He closed facilities in England and France and moved some image-recognition work to lower-cost Costa Rica.

But current and former employees said it wasn’t long before Carbon began pushing speed over safety. Amazon did not make the drone chief available for an interview, but spokesperson Zammit said Carbon has more than “25 years of experience bringing aerospace innovations to scale safely and reliably, and we’re excited that he’s leading the next phase of our mission to bring 30-minute delivery by drones to customers”.

David Johnson was a drone flight assistant for about a year, mostly at remote testing facilities in rural Oregon. He said Amazon often conducted tests without a full flight team and inadequate equipment, forcing employees to handle more than one role. For example, he said, someone responsible for a preflight drone inspection would quickly pivot to flight observer, which requires watching out for potential obstacles. 

“They give people multiple things to do in a very narrow window of time to try to boost their numbers, and people cut corners,” Johnson said. “They were more concerned about pumping flights out and didn’t want to slow down.” Two former Amazon employees corroborated Johnson’s account that crew members have been assigned multiple roles to keep tests going if the full team was not present.

Amazon’s Zammit called those claims false. “Crew members are assigned to only one role per flight,” he said. “Before each flight test, crew members are briefed on their individual role. We do not set time limits for completion of any aspect of our flight tests, and our team can take their time to complete their roles safely.”

The Pendleton drone-testing facility seeks to duplicate the conditions of a typical suburban or rural home. Picture: SPENCER SOPER/BLOOMBERG
The Pendleton drone-testing facility seeks to duplicate the conditions of a typical suburban or rural home. Picture: SPENCER SOPER/BLOOMBERG
Image: Bloomberg

While information flowed freely during the Kimchi era, Carbon put a stop to that, according to current and former employees. They said he was sensitive about language in written documents due to potential liability or regulatory scrutiny and let only select people view video of crashes, a move some employees interpreted as fear that clips would be leaked to the media.

During a meeting, according to several people who were there, one employee suggested safety concerns were being “swept under the rug”. Carbon bristled, these people said, and cautioned the employee to be more careful with his choice of words. They said Carbon’s reaction had a chilling effect, discouraging others from speaking out.

“The people most worried about safety were the ones conducting flights in hazardous situations and the ones least concerned about safety were the ones sitting behind a desk somewhere,” said one former employee, who requested anonymity to discuss internal matters without authorisation.

Over a four-month period in 2021 there were five crashes at a testing site in Pendleton, Oregon, a remote agricultural area in the high desert known for its annual rodeo and whiskey festival. Accidents are inevitable in an aviation testing programme, where equipment is deliberately pushed to the max to determine breaking points and improve the vehicle’s design. But these were vehicles Amazon was hoping to deploy for public tests.

In May, a drone propeller dislodged, causing the vehicle to tumble and crash upside down while its other motors were still running. The machine sustained substantial damage. Amazon employees cleared the wreckage before notifying federal officials so no inspection was conducted. The FAA advised the company not to disrupt crash sites in the future, federal records show.

In June, a drone motor conked out while the vehicle was transitioning from a vertical climb to forward motion. The automatic safety feature designed to land the machine in such instances did not work. The aircraft flipped upside down, and a stabilising safety function also failed. “Instead of a controlled descent to a safe landing, [the drone] dropped about 160 feet in an uncontrolled vertical fall and was consumed by fire,” the FAA wrote in a report on the incident.

The ensuing blaze scorched 25 acres and was extinguished by the local fire department. Insider previously reported some of the incident’s details and last week published a report on the high costs of Amazon drone delivery.

“After all those years and all the money invested, you would expect better,” said Antoine Deux, who was a senior engineer on the drone programme for four years before leaving in 2018. He said Amazon’s drone is too heavy compared with Google’s aircraft, which weighs about 5kg. “Every time you increase the weight of the load, the drone gets heavier, needs more batteries,” Deux said. “It’s a vicious circle.”

With crashes proliferating, morale on the team worsened and employees began departing. Some took jobs at Amazon Web Services while others left the company altogether. Some who had trouble meeting the pace their managers demanded were offered severance packages. Departures in 2021, Carbon’s first full year running the department, exceeded 200 people, more than double the previous year.

The people most worried about safety were the ones conducting flights in hazardous situations and the ones least concerned about safety were the ones sitting behind a desk somewhere.

Cheddi Skeete had a front-row seat on the department’s turmoil. A former flight attendant, he started as a drone flight assistant and was put in charge of improving morale. Skeete travelled frequently to get to know workers on the front lines and identify problems.

In Corvallis, Oregon, he discovered there were no portable toilets on a testing range leased from a local farmer. Female employees had to radio the entire team when they needed a bathroom break, forcing testing to be suspended while they searched for facilities off-site. Skeete said he reported the situation but was told the property owner did not want portable toilets on his land. The testing continued, and Skeete said he continued to question the wisdom of assigning people to a job with no restrooms. Amazon said it later installed portable toilets at the testing range.

In another instance, Skeete spoke up about plans to keep testing drones just five days after a motor failed and a drone crashed. Those eager to continue tests assured the team they had checked roughly 180 motors on about 30 other drones, Skeete said. But he doubted this because testing each engine is time-consuming. Amazon disputed the number of motors requiring checks.

Shortly afterwards, Skeete told his boss he no longer wanted to work for him. Skeete was advised to seek a different role at Amazon and said he applied for more than 30 positions. After his replacement was hired, Skeete spent weeks on the payroll with nothing to do. He filed an internal ethics complaint laying out his safety concerns but was told no such issues had turned up. In March Skeete was fired and offered what he deemed a small severance package in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement.

“I didn’t sign it because I’m someone who speaks up for myself and others,” Skeete said. “So many people before and after me have not been willing to speak up.”

Bloomberg News
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com.


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