Amazon Prime Air drone in Las Vegas at re:MARS event attended by Robert Downey Jr.

Amazon unveils latest Prime Air drone design in event attended by Robert Downey Jr.

It’s been more than five years since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos promised an Amazon Prime Air drone would be able to deliver packages to your doorstep.

And this week, Amazon unveiled its latest Prime Air drone design. The drone was previewed at the re:MARS Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, a conference put on by Amazon that focuses on AI topics including machine learning, automation, robotics, and space. The event is attracting high-profile speakers exploring lofty, futuristic topics, much like what you would expect from a real-life Stark Expo. The event was keynoted by Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr.

But perhaps the most talked-about part of the conference is Amazon’s headway on drone delivery.

Amazon Prime Air drone 2019 package delivery
Amazon’s latest design for its Amazon Prime Air drone (JORDAN STEAD / Amazon)

Amazon revealed a new, six-propeller drone with a surprising design. The new Amazon Prime Air drone can do vertical takeoffs and landings – like a helicopter or multicopter drone (the sort of takeoff you think of when you see most drones). But it can also fly in airplane mode, allowing for a more efficient, aerodynamic flight. Amazon has also included other unique design pieces included shrouds, which make it more efficient and safe.

Perhaps most unique about the drone is it can be controlled with six degrees, as opposed to the standard four.

Amazon says the fully-electric drone can fly up to 15 miles and deliver packages under five pounds to customers in less than 30 minutes.

Here’s a peek at the new Amazon Prime Air drone in action:

And package delivery might actually be coming at a wider scale this year.

“We expect to scale Prime Air both quickly and efficiently, delivering packages via drone to customers within months,” according to a statement from Amazon.

As is the norm with even consumer drones that you can buy for a few hundred dollars, Amazon’s drones have sensors that can detect objects in front of them, which theoretically should prevent the drone from flying into anything, whether its a clothesline in someone’s backyard or the telephone wire on the street. Amazon is using their own proprietary computer-vision and machine learning algorithms to power its sensors and advanced algorithms, such as multi-view stereo vision.

Amazon also claims their drones are a more environmentally friendly form of delivery, thanks to the drone’s electric power, charged by sustainable means. The Prime Air program is part of Amazon’s broader “Shipment Zero” program, which is an attempt to make all Amazon shipments net zero carbon, with 50% of all shipments net zero by 2030.

Amazon has moved slower than perhaps the general public expected after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos promised in an interview that aired on “60 Minutes” that drones would be delivering small items to people’s homes within a half hour of the order being placed.

“I know this looks like science fiction,” he said. “It’s not.”

At the time, Bezos said drone deliveries could happen as early as 2015, but more realistically within four to five years (which would have been 2017 or 2018). Of course, it’s 2019, and Amazon still has a somewhat nebulous target of when normal customers can expect drone deliveries.

Amazon Prime Air drone in Las Vegas at re:MARS event attended by Robert Downey Jr.

For its part, there’s a lot more that goes into drone delivery than just building a drone that can fly well. Factors to consider include air traffic control (ensuring drones know where other drones nearby are flying to avoid collisions) and remote identification (essentially license plates for drones). Amazon is even thinking about how it can prevent a hostile drone takeover.

Amazon also ran into a roadbloack after it was not selected as one of the companies that would be able to conduct flight tests as part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s new Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Program,which pairs governments up with private companies to test types of drone flights that are currently banned in the U.S., including package delivery.

2019 has been a big year for not just Amazon to make strides in drone delivery, but other companies, too. Wing (the drone startup of X, the company formerly known as Google) was awarded the first-ever drone air carrier certification from the U.S. Department of Transportation in earlier April. That certification means Wing can begin commercial package delivery in Blacksburg, VA.  Another drone delivery company that focuses on medical deliveries, Zipline, announced in April that it would open the first of four distribution centers in Ghana, as part of a drone-delivery network that is expected to eventually serve 2,000 hospitals and clinics covering 12 million people. And Matternet recently received permission to make drone deliveries on the WakeMed hospital campus in Raleigh, NC. 

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