Amazon.com Inc. presented plans to expand its experimental drone delivery initiative, announcing the start of shipping prescription drugs by air and promising to start flights in Britain and Italy by the end of 2024.
The online retailer recently began including drone delivery as a option for Amazon Pharmacy customers in a test program in College Station, Texas, one of two U.S. cities where Amazon delivers products using its lawnmower-sized unmanned vehicles.
At a press event held at a warehouse near Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, David Carbonvice president in charge of the Prime Air program, said the company would expand its drone delivery tests to a third American city, as well as locations in Great Britain and Italy. The cities will be announced “in the coming months,” Carbon said.
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Rapid delivery of medical supplies has become one of the leading candidates for a viable drone delivery business. Alphabet Inc.’s Wing, United Parcel Service Inc. and drone startup Zipline to deliver medical products via unmanned vehicles, sometimes in trial programs focused on hospital campuses or planned communities. In most places, drone use remains limited to restricted testing while regulators set rules to limit the risk to other aircraft and people on the ground.
John Lovevice president of Amazon Pharmacy, said the company offers free delivery of more than 500 medications by air to patients enrolled in the drone delivery trial in Texas. When Amazon’s Prime Air group surveyed customers to ask what products they would like to receive this way, medications “topped the list,” he said in an interview.
The medications come in small packages and often needed quickly, so they would likely be a popular option for drone delivery if they were widely available, Love said. “There are a lot of reasons why this could be really powerful, and something that can be scaled up,” she said.
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Amazon’s drone program, announced to the world by Jeff Bezos in 2013, it has been plagued by technical difficulties, high turnover, and safety concerns after accidents at a test site. The group was one of the Amazon units that suffered layoffs this year, CNBC reported at the time. A spokesperson said Amazon has made “thousands” of deliveries so far in College Station and Lockeford, California, where it is doing its other drone test in the US, since it began first deliveries in December 2022.
The company aims deliver medications by drones in less than an hour and in May received a license to operate a pharmacy from an address near its drone testing facility in College Station, Texas State Board of Pharmacy records show.
Carbon said Amazon’s latest drone design, the MK30, made its first test flight in September. The drone is lighter and can fly further than the MK27 vehicles that the Federal Aviation Administration cleared to operate in Amazon’s current tests.
He said the company’s drone delivery program will begin to move away from Prime Air’s specialized facilities and will join the company’s growing network of same-day delivery stations.