Amazon Drone Unit Loses Head of Safety, Main Liaison to FAA

The departure of Sean Cassidy, who led Amazon Prime Air’s safety, flight operations, and regulatory affairs, costs the firm a key relationship with the FAA.

Amazon Prime Air drone delivery

Amazon Prime Air unveiled its latest delivery drone, the MK30, a few months prior to Sean Cassidy’s departure. [Courtesy: Amazon]

It’s been almost one year since Amazon Prime Air launched drone delivery services in Lockeford, California, and College Station, Texas. The early returns have been…underwhelming, to say the least, despite the company’s recent international expansion.

This week, the business lost a key executive. First reported by CNBC, Sean Cassidy, who led Prime Air’s safety, flight operations, and regulatory affairs and was Amazon’s primary liaison with the FAA, has stepped down. An Amazon spokesperson confirmed Cassidy’s departure to FLYING, though the company has yet to name a replacement.

A former Alaska Airlines pilot and first vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), Cassidy was brought on in 2015 as Prime Air’s director of strategic partnerships before transitioning to a more expansive role.

As head of safety, flight operations, and regulatory affairs, Cassidy represented Amazon to regulators worldwide, led airworthiness and certification flight programs, and developed public policy initiatives, rulemaking, and regulatory language. He held the position for nearly eight years.

According to an internal company memo viewed by CNBC, Cassidy announced his departure last week.

“This is my last day at Prime Air and at Amazon, so a quick note to pass along my profound thanks to so many of my friends and colleagues here who have made this nearly nine year journey such an amazing experience,” Cassidy wrote.

While Prime Air will no doubt pick a new liaison to the FAA and other aviation regulators, the loss of a familiar face in Cassidy could pose a setback. The departing executive was influential in obtaining several key approvals, including the first standard Part 135 air carrier certificate awarded by the FAA to operate a drone larger than 55 pounds.

Cassidy has been on board for the vast majority of Prime Air’s decadelong existence. The unit was first teased by then-Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2013, when he predicted the service would be operational within two years. That vision did not come to fruition. But at the end of 2022, nearly a decade later, Prime Air drones finally took to the skies above Lockeford and College Station.

Early Turbulence

With a few exceptions—including Wing, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet—drone delivery companies are not yet serving the hundreds of thousands of customers many envisioned they would be by now. Prime Air, however, has struggled with scale more than most. And given Amazon’s bevy of cash and logistics capabilities, as well as the ambitious promises of Prime Air leadership, the firm’s early hiccups have been viewed in disappointing terms.

Trouble began in January, when Prime Air was impacted by companywide layoffs at Amazon. Confidential sources told CNBC the drone delivery unit lost a “significant number” of personnel, while former employees told DroneXL that up to 80 percent of its flight operations team had been let go.

In May, five months after launching its two commercial services, Amazon announced that Prime Air had completed just 100 deliveries—a far cry from the 10,000 trips predicted by vice president David Carbon, a former Boeing executive. The company cited operational restrictions by the FAA on its Part 135 certificate as the culprit.

Among these are limitations on flying at night, over people or roads, and beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the operator without a visual observer (VO). Under most BVLOS exemptions, the FAA requires VOs to be stationed along the route for safety purposes. Removing them, therefore, can lower an operator’s human capital costs and enable flights over longer distances.

Cassidy’s exit isn’t the only leadership loss Prime Air has faced in recent months. The business also lost chief pilot Jim Mullin and head of flight test operations Robert Dreer—who had been with the company for seven and four years, respectively—in August.

Correcting Course?

Despite its setbacks, Prime Air has soldiered on, and it appears things are beginning to turn around. In October, the company added prescription drone delivery for its College Station customers and announced an international expansion to the U.K. and Italy, where it expects to fly in late 2024. New service locations—including a third, unnamed U.S. market—will be named in the coming months.

Accompanying that announcement was a first look at the firm’s new MK30 drone, which will replace its existing model in the United States. Prime Air said the design flies twice as far as its predecessor while producing half the noise. It can also operate in light rain, hot and cold temperatures, and congested landing areas.

Adding to the recent momentum is a fresh exemption from the FAA, obtained in October. The regulator told FLYING the approval—which authorizes BVLOS flights without VOs—does not yet apply to Prime Air’s commercial services. As a Part 135 operator, the company’s operations specification documents, which are required to be held by certificated providers, do not allow for such flights.

However, the agency said Prime Air now has the opportunity to prove it can fly safely without VOs. If it does so, the FAA can add those permissions to the operations specification.

The regulator told FLYING that Prime Air’s exemption is a summary grant based on one of the BVLOS waivers it awarded in September to four operators: Zipline, UPS Flight Forward, Phoenix Air Unmanned, and uAvionix. Summary grants are essentially streamlined authorizations for “copycat” companies with similar infrastructure, technology, and operations to those who have already been approved.

According to CNBC, Cassidy led Amazon’s efforts to secure the approval, asking the FAA in July to sign off on the removal of VOs. Now, the company will need to find a way forward without its longtime liaison.

CNBC also reported that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is conducting a Class 4 investigation into a November 10 crash at Prime Air’s test site in Pendleton, Oregon, per a federal crash report. No injuries or destruction to the site were reported, though the drone suffered “substantial” damage.

As things stand, Prime Air is playing catch up in an increasingly crowded industry.

Zipline and Wing are the dominant players in medical and consumer drone delivery, respectively, each having made hundreds of thousands of deliveries. Both firms are partnered with Walmart, which has also made thousands of deliveries with a third company, DroneUp. Meanwhile, another operator with more than 150,000 flights logged, Ireland’s Manna, just launched in the U.S. Israel’s Flytrex has also cemented itself as a player.

This likely was not what Bezos envisioned when he revealed Amazon’s drone delivery plans a decade ago, and the loss of Cassidy will surely sting. But with its massive financial and logistical capabilities, the e-commerce giant is always a candidate for a rebound, and there’s still time for it to establish Prime Air as an industry stalwart.

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Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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