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Amazon's Jeff Wilke with drone
Amazon Worldwide Consumer CEO Jeff Wilke unveils the next-generation delivery drone at the re:MARS conference in Las Vegas. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

LAS VEGAS — Amazon’s drone ambitions took another step forward today as the tech giant revealed its latest delivery drone design.

At Amazon’s re:MARS conference, Amazon’s Worldwide Consumer CEO, Jeff Wilke, showed off a fully-electric drone that can fly up to 15 miles and deliver packages under 5 pounds in less than 30 minutes.

As Wilke spoke at this morning’s presentation, one of the drones — which is roughly the size of a go-cart — rose dramatically from a corner of the stage.

“You’re going to see this new drone delivering packages to customers in months,” Wilke told the Vegas crowd.

(Amazon Photo / Jordan Stead)

During a follow-up briefing, Wilke said Amazon isn’t yet ready to announce where the first deliveries would be made using the next-generation drones, but he acknowledged that the company has been in talks with regulators such as the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We right now do have permission to do testing in a couple of locations in the United States with the FAA,” Wilke told GeekWire. “But our objective is to have a certified commercial program that allows us to deliver to customers. That’s what we’re working toward, in months.”

Amazon’s new hexagon-shaped drone looks different from the experimental robotic aircraft that made Amazon Prime Air’s first aerial drop-offs in England in 2016 and in California in 2017.

“Our newest drone design includes advances in efficiency, stability and, most importantly, in safety,” Wilke wrote in a blog post. “It is also unique, and it advances the state of the art. How so? First, it’s a hybrid design. It can do vertical takeoffs and landings – like a helicopter. And it’s efficient and aerodynamic – like an airplane. It also easily transitions between these two modes – from vertical mode to airplane mode, and back to vertical mode.”

The drone is beefed up with a surrounding shroud that serves as the aerodynamic wing structure as well a safety guard for the rotors. It also has a proprietary computer vision system that can detect other flying objects from miles away, as well as the clotheslines in your backyard. “Wire detection is one of the hardest challenges for low-altitude flights,” Wilke explained.

If the drone senses that obstructions — ranging from trees and yard furniture to homeowners and their pets — are too close to the spot where a printed delivery target has been laid down, the computer-vision system will hold off on making the delivery, Wilke said.

Gur Kimchi, co-founder and vice president in charge of Amazon’s Prime Air drone development team, said computer simulations and machine learning figured prominently in the design of the drone.

“We designed the system, the system designed the drone,” Kimchi said.

Amazon has been testing a variety of drone designs for its delivery service, at hush-hush sites in locales ranging from rural Washington state and Canada to Israel and the Netherlands. Wilke said it’s possible that other designs will be fielded in the future, “but right now this is my favorite.”

Earlier this year, the company announced that it would make one-day delivery the new standard for Prime, its $119-per-year membership program. On Monday it said that free one-day shipping will be available to Prime members on more than 10 million products, with no minimum purchase amount.

Amazon’s shipping costs have ballooned in recent years as the company aims to speed up delivery. In 2018, Amazon spent $27.7 billion on shipping, an increase of $6 billion or roughly 27.6 percent over the prior year, according to GeekWire research. Worldwide shipping costs reached $7.3 billion in the first quarter, up 21 percent year-over-year.

Today Wilke said Amazon’s drones will open the way to increased capacity for same-day delivery — which is a hotly contested frontier in Amazon’s competition with Walmart and other retailers..

Last month, Walmart announced a plan to extend free one-day package delivery to 75 percent of the U.S population by the end of the year.

GeekWire managing editor Taylor Soper contributed to this report.

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