Amazon drone’s future is up in the air

Image: Amazon drone delivery
Amazon shows off a prototype drone that’s just made a test delivery of a shoebox in someone’s backyard. (Credit: Amazon via YouTube)

The hybrid drone design that Amazon unveiled over the weekend may be only one of several under consideration for delivering packages in 30 minutes or less, but it’s a doozy: The beefed-up Prime Air flier pushes the envelope on technical as well as regulatory grounds.

On the technical side, the prototype shown in Amazon’s video uses an array of rotors (eight, according to The Guardian) to take off vertically, then switches on an additional rotor to buzz through the air horizontally at up to 60 mph. The Guardian says it may be the first vertical-horizontal hybrid air vehicle to weigh in at less than 55 pounds, which is the upper limit for commercial delivery drones.

An autonomous sense-and-avoid navigation system keeps the drone from running into other objects on the way to its destination, at an altitude of up to 400 feet. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed off a sense-and-avoid system last month, but that one was designed to handle obstacles at a mere 30 mph – half the speed that’s built into Amazon’s specs.

The drone is also apparently designed to home in on a landing pad, perhaps equipped with an RFID tag or transmitter. The idea is that customers would lay out the pad in their backyard or some other open space in preparation for package delivery. (Can you buy a pad like that on Amazon yet? What if it’s raining, or if you’re an apartment dweller?)

Get the full story on GeekWire.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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