Amazon has unveiled a revolutionary new drone -- part helicopter and part science-fiction aircraft -- that the company expects to use for test deliveries of toothpaste and other household goods starting within months.
The new device takes off vertically, then tilts to fly horizontally like a plane. It also features artificial intelligence, using a suite of sensors the company said will allow it to fly robotically without threatening traditional aircraft or people on the ground.
“We have a design that is amazing,” Gur Kimchi, vice president of Amazon Prime Air, said in an interview in which he declined to say where the device would be tested. “It has performance that we think is just incredible. We think the autonomy system makes the aircraft independently safe.”
After more than a year of relative quiet by Amazon Prime Air in the race to bring drone deliveries to market, the company’s announcement on Wednesday is a sign that it has been aggressively working with regulators to craft a system that can operate under existing aviation rules and those being drafted for the future.
The Amazon announcement was full of drama as Jeff Wilke, chief of the company’s global consumer business, prepared to announce the device at a technology conference in Las Vegas. But Amazon declined to release some specifics on the device, citing trade secrets. And it also didn’t provide information about where it intends to conduct delivery tests, which have been in the U.K. in the past.
It can take years for traditional aircraft manufacturers to get U.S. Federal Aviation Administration approval for new designs and the agency is still developing regulations to allow drone flights over populated areas and to address national security concerns. That makes it unlikely Amazon’s new delivery drones will be clogging the skies over the U.S. in routine flights anytime soon.
Still, Amazon’s confidence in the drone shows this new segment of the aviation industry is rapidly maturing and working closer than ever with regulators.
One of its competitors, Alphabet Inc.’s Wing, in April became the first drone company to win FAA approval to operate as a small airline and is planning its own delivery tests. United Parcel Service Inc. and drone startup Matternet Inc. began using drones to move medical samples between hospitals in Raleigh, North Carolina, in March.
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