Skip to Content

An Amazon Drone Has Delivered Its First Products to a Paying Customer

The company’s first-ever autonomous aerial delivery is an important step forward for the technology.
December 14, 2016

Amazon has had made its first ever commercial drone delivery. And while its Prime Air setup is barely little more than a stunt, it is now at least a stunt that demonstrates the technology could finally be of some use.

At MIT Technology Review, we’ve been skeptical of some drone delivery experiments in the past—because, currently, they can amount to little more than gimmicks. Limited battery life and payload capacity mean that something about the size and weight of a burrito is the upper limit of what they can deliver.

Amazon’s first ever drone delivery, made December 7 and announced today, wasn’t much better in terms of what it could carry. It ferried an Amazon Fire TV stick, a small and slender gadget, and a bag of popcorn to its first lucky customer. At the moment, in fact, the trial only serves a total of two beta users. No, that’s not a typo.

And yet, the news is compelling.

It’s certainly been a long time coming. It’s almost exactly three years since Jeff Bezos appeared on 60 Minutes to announce that his business was hoping to use drones to deliver packages. Things have gotten in the way of the plans—notably regulation. New rules from the Federal Aviation Administration meant to open up the air for commercial drone flights didn’t help Amazon, because it needs its drones to fly outside an operator’s line of sight.

So Bezos signed a deal with the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority to test the technology there instead. 

At a test site just outside Cambridge, U.K., Amazon has built a small fulfillment center with a drone launchpad. An order weighing up to five pounds can be packed into the drone, which then finds its way to a customer’s house autonomously using GPS, always flying below 400 feet.

It only serves two nearby customers now, which clearly makes it a promotional stunt rather than a real delivery method. But it claims that it will increase that number to a few dozen before long, and later to hundreds. Ultimately, of course, it envisages skies thick with the small aircraft.

Though customers will only be able to order from a small selection of light and compact products, the company’s small fulfillment center lends the project legitimacy because it will offer real products that people do buy. Along with Zipline’s trials in Rwanda, where the aircraft are shuttling supplies of blood and drugs to remote health-care centers, Amazon’s drone delivery shows that autonomous aerial shipment isn’t totally ridiculous.  

That said, there will continue to be barriers to scaling up. Shipping small products is fine, but has obvious limitations that can only be overcome if drones improve in performance and battery life. And those regulatory issues may have been brushed aside in a quiet part of rural England, but they remain elsewhere.

For now, though, Amazon's first consumer drone delivery, three years in the making, is a demonstration that a future filled with packages from the sky isn't quite as distant as it may have seemed.

(Read more: Amazon, TechCrunch, “U.K. Signs a Deal with Amazon to Test Delivery Drones,” “Why Rwanda Is Going to Get the World’s First Network of Delivery Drones,” “Amazon Lays Out Its Vision for a Sky Thronging with Delivery Drones”)

Keep Reading

Most Popular

open sourcing language models concept
open sourcing language models concept

Meta has built a massive new language AI—and it’s giving it away for free

Facebook’s parent company is inviting researchers to pore over and pick apart the flaws in its version of GPT-3

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

Yann LeCun
Yann LeCun

Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.