Amazon’s drone delivery program, Prime Air, is shuttering part of its operations in the United Kingdom, a new Wired report reveals. The company has already fired more than 100 employees in the UK, while many others are being transferred abroad.
Amazon Prime Air team started laying the groundwork for drone deliveries in the UK in 2016. Five years in, the program is yet to deliver a fleet of working drones – even though UK regulators fast-tracked approvals for drone testing. As a result, the project’s entire UK data analysis team is being made redundant, Wired has learned.
Amazon drone delivery program ‘collapsing inwards’
This team made up for a large chunk of Prime Air’s UK operations in Cambridge. It was tasked with analyzing drone footage from test flights for different types of threats: humans, animals, and other manmade objects in the sky. This analysis would feed the machine learning models that would train Amazon delivery drones to fly safely.
But the whole operation quickly turned into a hot mess. By the end of 2019, there was near-constant employee attrition – right from entry-level workers to managers. One former employee told Wired they had three different managers in the space of one month. Another compared the exodus of senior managers to “rats off a [sinking] ship.”
Many of the new hires came from logistics or warehouse ops backgrounds and had little to no technical knowledge of drones. One former worker saw an employee pinning down the “approve” button on their computer so that all the frames in the drone footage would get approved, regardless of whether there were threats in them or not. An insider tells Wired:
Everything started collapsing inwards because they [Amazon] piled too much on. They put people in charge who didn’t know anything about the project and they oversold. It’s all one gigantic oversell – just so many promises that can’t be kept.
The publication also reveals that there was a time in 2020 when the entire human and animals data analysis department in the UK was shuttered, only to be reopened and restaffed three months later. A former employee tells:
There was a lot of decision-making made in the moment without long-term thought to it. It was almost slinging shit at the wall and hoping stuff would stick.
In the meantime, Amazon’s engineering team was fighting another battle, trying to develop drones that would hover right above the ground to deliver a package instead of using a parachute or a tethered freefall mechanism. At one point, Amazon’s drones ballooned to about 27 kg, which meant they could no longer be classified as small drones.
A recent Amazon patent suggests the company may have been looking to overcome this problem by using wheeled delivery robots instead. In this mechanism, airborne drones would have acted as “eyes” for the ground robots, directing them where to go.
Future murky for Amazon drone delivery?
An Amazon spokesperson informs Wired that the company will continue to have a Prime Air presence in the UK. However, the company refuses to say what the new headcount would be or what type of work will be done now.
Also, it’s worth noting that while Wired’s report focuses on Prime Air’s UK operations, this is not the first time Amazon’s overall drone ambitions have been put under the scanner. Last month, a Business Insider report laid bare internal conflict, high turnover, and “significant confusion” between engineering and business units as to what the future product looked like.
Amazon received the green light from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to start drone delivery in the US almost a year ago, but the company is yet to define a timeline for when this might happen. Meanwhile, Amazon insiders have expressed serious doubts about whether the company’s drone delivery dreams will ever become a reality:
When I was there, Prime Air was already years from being a thing. But it’s never going to get off the ground.