Oct 17, 2016 | By Benedict

Online retailer Amazon has invited schoolchildren and local media to its secret drone laboratory in Cambridge, UK. Inside the facility, which contains 3D printing equipment, researchers are developing drones which can deliver 2kg packages up to 15 miles in just half an hour.

The secret has been out for some time: Amazon is developing high-tech drones for a futuristic delivery program. Reaction to the “Prime Air” proposal has been somewhat mixed, but the giant online retailer has promised a new era of convenient online shopping, managing to stimulate discussions about drone technology in the process. Until now, however, the company has kept a tight lid on the program’s research and development, leading some to wonder: “What’s really going on at Amazon?” The answer to that question has now been provided—not to the global tech community at large, but to a group of Cambridge schoolchildren and journalists from a local newspaper.

A short distance from Cambridge city center lies Amazon’s drone laboratory, located in the Castle Park area of the city. Last week, the online shopping superpower invited Cambridge News, along with eight grade 5 pupils from the nearby Steeple Morden School, to the facility in order to shed some light on what’s going on at Prime Air. The schoolchildren, whose names were drawn from a hat by their teacher, were given a chance to see various drone components, such as batteries and wings, and were able to operate a drone simulator. Afterwards, they had the chance to fly a real drone. According to Amazon, the children were invited to encourage interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), potentially inspiring the next generation of Prime Air employees.

During the tour of its facility, Amazon revealed that its drones will use GPS coordinates to find their delivery destination, flying at a maximum height of 400 feet before identifying a marker for landing. The unmanned aircraft will then descend, sidestepping obstacles like trees using a “sense and avoid” system. The company also showed the visitors a number of 3D printers, which are being used to make aerodynamic parts for the aircraft. Amazon claims that its new 50mph drones could delivery packages in as little as 30 minutes, providing consumers with an unprecedented level of convenience.

Amazon’s drone program was given a major boost in July when the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) lifted strict drone flying restrictions, enabling the online retailer to begin testing its aircraft at the Cambridge site—the largest outdoor testing facility in the UK. An important part of the ongoing testing process involves the thorough examination of sensor performance to ensure that the drones can identify and avoid obstacles using the “sense and avoid” system.

Images: David Johnson / Cambridge News

Of course, Amazon’s new delivery drones won’t be used for all deliveries; they will instead be optimized for packages weighing just over 2kg (around 87% of items), for journeys up to 15 miles, and customers will ultimately have a choice as to whether they want to use the new technology. “We think customers will love it, but this is not the only thing we do,” said Kristen Kish, Communications and PR Lead for Prime Air. “Amazon customers have a choice. It's ultimately going to depend on customer demand: if it's a service they want to use, great, but we're going to give them options.”

The drones will be automated, but will be closely monitored by a safety operator to ensure that the aircraft is performing safely and correctly. Eventually, this safety operator will be able to monitor several drones at a time. At present, there is no date set for the launch of Prime Air, as Amazon needs to meet incredibly strict safety criteria before it can send out its package-delivering fleet.


Source: Cambridge News


Posted in 3D Printing Application



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