Updated 11:40 a.m. EDT Friday with additional details on Prime Air’s international expansion and new drone design.
Amazon has struggled to get Prime Air drone delivery off the ground, but the firm is hopeful it’s found an antidote.
The e-commerce giant on Wednesday announced that Amazon Pharmacy customers in College Station, Texas—one of two locations the company has been flying in since December—can now receive prescription medications via drone in less than an hour. Customers will have access to more than 500 medications treating common conditions such as the flu, asthma, and pneumonia.
“For decades, the customer experience has been to drive to a pharmacy with limited operating hours, stand in line, and have a public conversation about your health situation, or to wait five to 10 days for traditional, mail-order delivery,” said John Love, vice president of Amazon Pharmacy. “With Amazon Pharmacy, you can quickly get the medications you need—whether by drone or standard delivery—without having to miss soccer practice or leave work early.”
The service has potential to benefit the nearly half of Americans who forgo healthcare due to inconvenience or high costs. Amazon declined to say whether it would expand beyond College Station. But the company also offers same-day pharmacy delivery in Indianapolis, Miami, Phoenix, Seattle, and Austin, Texas, priming those cities as future markets.
“We’re taught from the first days of medical school that there is a golden window that matters in clinical medicine,” said Dr. Vin Gupta, chief medical officer of Amazon Pharmacy. “That’s the time between when a patient feels unwell and when they’re able to get treatment. We’re working hard at Amazon to dramatically narrow the golden window from diagnosis to treatment, and drone delivery marks a significant step forward.”
Prime Air’s hexarotor drones fly between around 130 and 400 feet above ground level, which would not conflict with fixed-wing traffic but is still in the neighborhood of helicopters. Built-in sense-and-avoid technology uses sensors and cameras—which feed into a neural network trained to identify objects—to navigate around obstacles such as people, pets, power lines, or other aerial traffic.
Separately, Amazon made a trio of announcements, the most consequential being that its drones will arrive in the U.K., Italy, and another unnamed U.S. city outside California and Texas by late 2024, kicking off Prime Air’s international expansion. The company said it is working closely with regulators in the U.S., U.K., Italy, and the European Union to develop those services, and specific cities will be named in the coming months.
“The future has arrived in Italy,” said Pierluigi Di Palma, President of Italy’s National Civil Aviation Authority (ENAC). “Being chosen by a global player such as Amazon is further confirmation of the strategy pursued by ENAC to push for innovation of advanced air mobility in the aviation industry, creating a national ecosystem favorable to the safe development of new services. Italy’s experience will be an inspiration and support for safe operations in the rest of Europe.”
Baroness Charlotte Vere, the U.K.’s aviation minister, added that Amazon’s entry supports the country’s goal of making commercial drones commonplace by 2030. Early on, customers will be able to order thousands of items for Prime Air drone delivery, including household essentials, beauty products, and office supplies.
Amazon also unveiled the first photos of its MK30 drone, which will replace the company’s MK27-2 drones in the U.S. and will be the first model flown in the U.K. and Italy. The company said the MK30 can fly twice as far and produce half the perceived noise compared to its previous model.
Like the MK27-2, the new design flies autonomously, is equipped with proprietary sense-and-avoid technology, and will deliver packages up to 5 pounds within an hour. But the MK30 will be able to fly in light rain or hot or cold temperatures and deliver more precisely to congested landing zones, such as densely populated suburbs.
If that wasn’t enough buzz, Prime Air provided one more update. Moving forward, drones will be integrated into the company’s delivery network: In the U.K. and Italy, they’ll launch from Amazon fulfillment centers, beginning with one in each country. In the U.S., the drones will take off from same-day delivery sites, smaller versions of those facilities.
Deliveries in College Station and Lockeford, California—the company’s other U.S. market—are currently conducted out of standalone Prime Air Delivery Centers. Soon, drones will depart from the same buildings as the company’s delivery vans, which should help the e-commerce giant keep its ducks in a row.
The fulfillment and same-day delivery sites house items Amazon says are primed for drone delivery, such as cold medicines or AA batteries, Prime Air’s most popular request. The centers were also deliberately built to serve as many customers as possible, making them ideal hubs for drone delivery.
Wednesday’s announcements are the first updates Amazon has provided on Prime Air since May, when it revealed that its two services combined had made just 100 deliveries: a far cry from its goal of 10,000 by year’s end.
That figure pales in comparison to the thousands of U.S. drone deliveries made by Walmart and its partners—or hundreds of thousands in the case of one provider, Alphabet’s Wing, including its services in Australia.
Another Walmart partner, Zipline, is the world’s largest medical drone delivery provider. It has made more than 700,000 deliveries globally, including in Arkansas and Utah in the U.S.
How Pharmacy Delivery Will Work
Despite the Prime Air moniker, College Station residents do not have to be Prime customers to order drone delivery. They will, however, need to onboard with Prime Air and complete a yard survey, after which Amazon will ship them a QR Code delivery marker. Customers will need to position this manually on their doorstep or another location of their choice.
Eligible customers can select the option for “free drone delivery in less than 60 minutes” at Amazon Pharmacy checkout, for no additional charge. A pharmacist will then load the prescription onto the drone, which flies directly to the customer’s doorstep.
“Our drones fly over traffic, eliminating the excess time a customer’s package might spend in transit on the road,” said Calsee Hendrickson, director of product and program management at Prime Air. “That’s the beauty of drone delivery, and medications were the first thing our customers said they also want delivered quickly via drone. Speed and convenience top the wish list for health purchases.”
Once it arrives at the customer’s address, the drone lowers itself over the prepositioned QR Code. Onboard computer vision ensures the path of descent is clear before initiating the drop (literally—packages are released from 12 feet off the ground).
Amazon is one of a handful of FAA-approved air carriers—the others being Wing, Zipline, UPS Flight Forward, and Causey Aviation Unmanned, a longtime partner of Israeli drone delivery firm Flytrex—permitted to conduct commercial drone delivery operations in the U.S. under a standard Part 135 certificate. It’s the only firm authorized to operate drones weighing more than 55 pounds under that approval.
Zipline, which uses a parachute to make deliveries and will soon introduce a tether that lowers a small delivery “droid,” is the dominant player in medical drone delivery, with robust operations in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2016. The company is now growing its services in the U.S. with Walmart and received a lift from its recent FAA beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) approval.
Wing, arguably the most successful retail and restaurant drone delivery provider based on sheer volume, is now also exploring medical delivery in the U.K. and Ireland with partner Apian. Meanwhile, Germany’s Wingcopter and the U.S.’ Spright signed a deal to launch medical deliveries across the continental U.S.
Prime Air’s Progress
The success (or lack thereof) of Prime Air prescription drone delivery and its services abroad may depend on the e-commerce giant’s ability to quickly onboard customers. Wing, for example, also vets potential delivery addresses to ensure there is room for a drone to land, but it doesn’t require customers to initiate that process. It also does not need QR Codes or other infrastructure to be stationed at customers’ homes.
Another hurdle to overcome will be scale. According to CBS News, the company’s operation in Lockeford includes just eight drones, less than half the amount Wing deploys for its newly launched Dallas service. Prime Air’s drones are much bigger than the Alphabet subsidiary’s, which could make it more challenging to maintain a larger fleet.
One factor working in Amazon’s favor is its massive network of delivery infrastructure in the U.S. and worldwide. By integrating Prime Air drones into that latticework of facilities and positioning the aircraft closer to customers, the firm could unlock more demand and agility for its services
Like Wing, Zipline, and other large drone delivery players, Prime Air is backed by a war chest of funding, with the added benefit of being one of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ pet projects. The early returns are discouraging, but Prime Air likely won’t be grounded any time soon.