Amazon Unveils New Robotic Hybrid Drone-Plane

You just knew Amazon wasn’t going to get shut out of a DOT sanctioned drone delivery pilot program a year ago that let in Google, a FedEx/General Electric/Intel team and Uber, and take it lying down.

After having been quiet for the past 12 months about its progress in drones for ecommerce deliveries, Amazon has unveiled a bold new delivery system that’s part drone, part aircraft with robotic capabilities, Bloomberg has reported.

The new Prime Air craft takes off vertically like a helicopter but then tilts to fly like an airplane, with artificial intelligence and sensors that allow it to fly robotically. It was unveiled today by Jeff Wilke, Amazon’s worldwide consumer CEO, at the company’s re:MARS Conference (Machine Learning, Automation, Robotics and Space) in Las Vegas.

One of the main hang-ups with between federal regulators and drone makers is an FAA requirement for line-of-sight operation, which would make large-scale drone deliveries impractical.

Bloomberg said Amazon plans to begin test deliveries of consumer goods in the coming months, without revealing any other details. The report added FAA approval may still be problematic as there aren’t yet regulations for robotically-controlled aerial delivery craft.

“We know customers will only feel comfortable receiving drone deliveries if they know the system is incredibly safe,” Wilke said in a blog post announcing the news. “So, we’re building a drone that isn’t just safe, but independently safe, using the latest AI technologies.”

Wilke said sensors and advanced algorithms, such as multi-view stereo vision, allow the craft to detect static objects, such as a chimney. Proprietary computer vision and machine learning algorithms help it detect and avoid moving objects, such as birds or other aerial craft.

When approaching a delivery point such as a customer’s yard, Wilke said the craft uses stereo vision and sophisticated AI algorithms to detect people and animals from above. Computer vision techniques allow it to avoid wires and clotheslines.

The drones are even in line with Amazon’s Shipment Zero initiative, a plan to have all of its deliveries be carbon neutral, hitting a 50% goal by 2030.

“Our drones are safe, efficient, stable, and good for the environment,” Wilke concluded. “We know customers have high standards, so we set a high bar for Prime Air. And we’re excited to be nearing our goal.”

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