Despite FAA Setbacks, Amazon Prime Air Makes Notable Engineering, NASA And Aerospace Hires

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Something big is going on with Amazon Prime Air, the e-commerce giant’s research project focused on delivering packages in 30 minutes or less using unmanned drones. And it’s not the dubious story about drone testing in India, which frankly, doesn’t pass the sniff test in terms of accuracy.

Prime Air is shaping up to be more than a marketing stunt, it seems. The company recently scored a few notable hires for this project, including former aerospace engineers, a NASA astronaut, a number of Microsoft researchers and Bing engineers, and even the co-founder of Keyhole, the original developer of Google Earth (prior to the Google acquisition.)

Prime Air’s more notable hires may not be household names, but are indicative of a project Amazon is taking seriously, after all.

Why “after all?”

Well, because many people didn’t buy into the Prime Air hype at first.

In case you missed it back then, Amazon made a splashy announcement about its drone project, Prime Air, just before the Christmas holiday in the U.S. On the biggest online shopping day of the year, Cyber Monday, CBS’s 60 Minutes aired an interview with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, which uncritically, we might add, saw veteran reporter Charlie Rose, smiling, exclaim “oh my God!” as he viewed the Prime Air drones for the first time.

Pundits soon were questioning CBS’ credibility, while some in developer community Hacker News scoffed that Prime Air was “vaporware,” – meaning a nice idea, sure, but one that’s a long time from ever being a reality.

That still may be true, of course, despite all the recent hires.

CBS was simply playing a part in Amazon’s agenda to garner public support for Prime Air, some had said, hoping to force the Federal Aviation Administration’s hand. Also possibly true. The FAA is anti-Prime Air to be sure. This June, it grounded Amazon’s plans, banning package-delivering drones using language aimed at Amazon’s Prime Air program directly.

But with the hires Prime Air has been making, the project seems at least somewhat less vaporous today than in the past, despite the FAA’s decision.

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Notable New Hires

In July, Amazon hired Prime Air VP of Science Paul Viola, an MIT Ph.D. and former Microsoft researcher who led an engineering group at Bing which used machine learning to make dramatic improvements to Bing’s accuracy and precision. As one source told TechCrunch, under Viola’s supervision from 2010-2011, Bing made several jumps in precision both by its own metrics and Google’s. In fact, the source added, Google even started “war rooms” and ran several emergency sessions devoted to the sudden rise of Bing’s precision at this time.

According to his own LinkedIn page, Viola also led a turnaround of the Bing Ads team, which led to increased revenue.

Another interesting new hire: Avi Bar-Zeev, now a senior manager at Prime Air. Bar-Zeev co-founded Keyhole, Inc., which Google bought and turned into Google Earth. He also previously worked at Microsoft on a variety of VR/AR, 3D and other hardware and software projects, including what became the Bing iPhone app, Kinect and Xbox, and more.

He also did a brief stint at Amazon, helping the company prototype and sell a new tablet computer in late 2012 to spring 2013, before returning to the company in April of this year to join Prime Air.

Prime Air has also been staffing up with hires from the aerospace industry, with recent additions starting this spring and summer who have aerodynamics and aerospace backgrounds from BoeingLockheed Martin, and MIT’s Space Propulsion Lab. Twenty or so interns hail from MIT with backgrounds in engineering or robotics.

And NASA astronaut Neil Woodward joined as a Technical Program Manager, responsible for Flight Test, Safety, Risk Management and Certification efforts in April.

This is in addition to those we already knew about, like Prime Air VP Gur Kimchi, who also served on Waze’s board before the Google acquisition, and Daniel Buchmueller, profiled by Fast Company. And Prime Air director of software development, Severan Rault, hired back in February 2013, who was also previously an architect at Bing, and describes himself as a Prime Air “co-founder.”

His bio says he’s managing a team of 76 engineers, research scientists, and technical product and program managers. Not too shabby for vaporware.

Speeding Things Up?

While it will likely be many years before drone delivery is legalized in the U.S., if at all, that hasn’t stopped Amazon from investing in the project for when and if that day arrives.

Amazon, of course, wants to speed things up as best it can. Next month, it will flesh out its public policy team with Ben Gielow, previously general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a non-profit technology advocacy group.

The Prime Air team this month also added its own communications lead, previously of Microsoft PR firm Waggener Edstrom, and has its own general counsel.

And as of today, Prime Air is hiring in Seattle, Cambridge, and London, with job listings for research scientists, program managers, flight operations engineers, and more. If Prime Air is vaporware like many claimed following CBS’s original report, it certainly will have been expensive.

UPDATE, 8/20, 8 PM ET: Avi Bar-Zeev has responded to this post, with more details on why he decided to re-join Amazon.