Drone delivery has made significant progress in 2016. Delivery company Flirtey has worked with the FAA to test delivery in rural, urban, and ship-to-shore scenarios. Medical delivery company Zipline has been deployed to deliver blood supplies to remote clinics in Rwanda. And the ubiquitous Google is doing its part, delivering Chipotle burritos to college students at Virginia Tech. But the biggest step so far toward a broad-based deployment of drone delivery happened last week: online retail giant Amazon delivered its first package to a customer.
It’s been about 3 years since Amazon’s chief executive Jeff Bezos first said that the company planned to use drones to deliver packages to customer’s homes. The plan – which at the first announcement seemed outlandish – is coming to fruition. In those 3 years, Amazon has shown that drone delivery is only a piece of their larger, grander plan to take control of their delivery network. The company has invested in fleets of trucks and aircraft; they are reorganizing their warehousing systems; and they’ve been working – steadily and sometimes secretly – on drone delivery.
Amazon has pursued their plans for drone delivery with all of the power that a trillion dollar company can muster. They’ve become one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington – largely arguing for commercial drone regulation. They’ve been visible players at drone conferences around the world, presenting their own vision for a “federated airspace” system of drone integration. Seemingly thwarted by an uncooperative FAA who has not made it easy for them to pursue testing of their drone program in the US, they made a deal with the UK government and set up shop in an English field.
And on Wednesday, Jeff Bezos tweeted that an Amazon shopper in Cambridgeshire, England, had received delivery by drone. The flight delivered an Amazon Fire streaming device and some popcorn; it launched from a “nearby” warehouse and covered about 2 miles in about 13 minutes. While the delivery doesn’t represent the first delivery of commercial goods by drone, it is the first delivery by Amazon. And with the company’s deep pockets, powerful lobby, and strong motivation to take control of their entire delivery cycle, that could be the biggest step yet for broad deployment of drone delivery.