Amazon beefs up drone delivery R&D in Cambridge

Amazon is expanding its R&D facilities in Cambridge, UK, with a plan to move into a new 60,000 sq ft site in the city with capacity for more than 400 staff.

Cambridge University, one of the UK’s top tier academic institutions, has a strong focus on science — explaining why a raft of tech firms (not just Amazon) have chosen to site R&D efforts there.

Announcing the expansion of its Cambridge development operations yesterday, Amazon said staff at the site will include machine learning scientists, knowledge engineers, data scientists, mathematical modellers, speech scientists and software engineers, with teams set to work on programs including its drone delivery effort, Prime Air; Amazon devices; and Alexa, its AI voice assistant tech.

It said its existing development building in the city, at Castle Hill, will be used primarily for research and development related to its drone delivery efforts, once the new One The Square R&D facility opens this fall. The new R&D building is located in the business district adjacent to Cambridge train station, putting it less than an hour by rail from London.

Existing Amazon R&D teams working on devices including the Kindle e-reader, Fire tablet, Fire TV Stick; its suite of voice-driven AI assistant hardware: Echo, Echo Dot and the new Echo Look; and the voice tech itself, Alexa, will also move to the new larger Cambridge site starting this fall — so it sounds like Amazon is aiming to, at very least, double down on its Cambridge R&D hub, if not concentrate most of its hardware-related research efforts in the city (although it does also have R&D facilities in Edinburgh and London, and is also currently hiring at both sites).

Job roles Amazon is recruiting for the new Cambridge R&D center at the moment include text to speech scientists, a mathematical modeller for its machine learning team, and multiple software engineering and applied science roles.

By the end of the year, it says it will have more than 1,500 “innovation related roles” in the UK — ranging from machine learning and drones to streaming video and cloud computing, via its Amazon Web Services platform. While the total number of permanent new UK jobs it plans to have created by the end of this year is 5,000 — which will bring its total UK workforce to 24,000.

Cambridge has fed plenty of expertise into Amazon’s R&D efforts over the years — including beefing up its natural language processing technology, after the ecommerce giant acquired local startup Evi in 2012, putting that tech to work in its Alexa voice assistant.

The company also chose Cambridgeshire to kick off its first customer trial of Prime Air drone deliveries — with two beta users able to test ordering a subset of products for airfreighting into their backyards within minutes.

In recent years the UK has adopted a favorable approach to robotics testing outdoors. And Amazon was given permission to operate beyond line-of-sight flights last July — paving the way for the Prime Air customer trial that launched last December.