Amazon starts Prime Air drone delivery trial in the UK — but only with two beta users

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Amazon today announced that it has started a small private drone delivery trial in the UK. It’s currently working with only two shoppers who can now order their goods by drone. Over time, Amazon plans to expand this trial to a few dozen — and later to hundreds — of shoppers who live within a few miles of its first Prime Air fulfillment center around Cambridge in the UK.

The first delivery was on December 7th and didn’t fly too far, but this is still a major step for Prime Air, which looked like little more than an early April Fools’ joke when Amazon first announced this project. The drones are loaded in a fulfillment center and then rolls out of the hall on rails, after which they take off. The full flight happens autonomously, including the landing, and the idea is to ensure that all deliveries arrive within 30 minutes.

The first product the drone delivered was an Amazon Fire TV and a bag of popcorn. The process took 13 minutes from the time the customer entered the order to the time the package was delivered. The drones will be able to carry packages up to five pounds.

Amazon tells us that the current batch of customers will be able to order seven days a week, but only during daylight hours and when the weather is okay to fly.

Judging by the video Amazon posted today, the customer will have to roll out a small mat in the backyard that the drone can then see and land on.

The drone Amazon is using for these trials is different from the ones it previously showed. It’s a more traditional quadcopter design as opposed to the hybrid plane/quadcopter it showed off last year. That likely means it doesn’t have the full range Amazon is hoping for in the long run, but it’s also a tried and tested design. Amazon also always said that it was working on various types of drones.

Prime Air has been testing its drones in various locations around the world and Amazon also recently set up a lab in Austria where dozens of computer scientists are working on computer vision-based sense-and-avoid technologies.

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Traditionally, Prime Air always made a big splash around the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. This started in 2013 with the (in)famous 60 Minutes piece on CBS that catapulted the idea of routine deliveries by drones into the mainstream. Last year, it debuted the latest hybrid model of its drones with the help of Top Gear/Grand Tour star Jeremy Clarkson. This year, however, things around Prime Air remained quiet over Thanksgiving (my guess is that Amazon didn’t want to take attention away from the launch of the Grand Tour).

With less than a handful of beta testers, this is obviously a very small test for the time being, but it does show how serious Amazon is about this project and it’ll likely only be a few months before far more people around Cambridge will be able to order their tea and biscuits by Prime Air. Don’t expect to see a similar service in the U.S. anytime soon, though. Amazon is able to do this in the UK because it received permission there to operate beyond line-of-sight flights last July. To do so, its drones had to pass extensive safety tests. It’ll also be a while before Amazon will be able to expand this test beyond the rural environment it is working in now. Urban drone deliveries are far more difficult than flying to large backyards in the countryside. That, too, though is a problem the company is current trying to solve.