Friday, May 27, 2022

When Amazon drones crashed, the company told the Federal Aviation Administration to go fly a kite

  • Amazon has tried to avoid federal investigations of some of its drone crashes, according to federal documents obtained by Business Insider.
  • At least eight Amazon drones have crashed during testing in the past year, Business Insider previously reported.
  • Amazon has been expanding its drone delivery tests and hopes to make an early version available to customers by mid-2024.





Amazon's Prime Air autonomous drone delivery program has tried to put off federal investigations into some of its drone crashes by claiming that the company has the authority to investigate its own crashes, according to federal documents obtained through a public records request. The company has also been slow to turn over data related to crashes, the documents show. 

On at least two occasions, inspectors for the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates drone flights, were surprised to learn that Amazon had moved crash evidence, which an inspector said inhibited at least one of the investigations, according to the documents. During another investigation, Amazon told the FAA that the agency's involvement was unnecessary.

At least eight Amazon drones crashed during testing in the past year, Insider previously reported, including one that sparked a 20-acre brush fire in eastern Oregon last June after the drone's motors failed. 

Taken together, the documents suggest that Amazon has at times begrudged federal inspections of its experimental drone crashes. These findings come as the company seeks FAA approval to fly its drones in residential areas ahead of a potential mid-2024 customer debut.

Regulatory delays could "totally disrupt" that timeline, the company told FAA officials in a call with the agency earlier this year, according to the FAA's notes on that call. 

An Amazon spokesperson said that Insider's characterization of the FAA documents was "misleading and inaccurate." 

Prime Air "has complied with all incident reporting, investigation, and other applicable regulatory requirements," the spokesperson, Kelly Nantel, said. "Over the last seven years, the FAA has never taken an enforcement action against Prime Air, and has awarded us an air carrier certificate to enable commercial deliveries — showing that our comprehensive process has met the FAA's high bar."

Since launching in 2013, Prime Air has been beset by delays and missed deadlines. The division has been under recent pressure to deliver results. Executives earlier this year concluded the seven years the team had spent on R&D had failed to produce "a delivery service that could be safely operated over populated areas," Insider previously reported. 

Prime Air VP David Carbon, a former Boeing executive, has spent the past two years pushing the division to complete testing needed to obtain regulatory approval for its autonomous drones. But changing goals, frequent delays, and a shifting culture has led to low morale, employee burnout, and an attrition rate as high as 70% on the company's test team, Insider previously reported. Some employees have left amid concerns about Prime Air's safety culture, Bloomberg reported last month. 

Amazon has taken so long to unveil its drone delivery program because its engineers are "working to solve complicated problems and are committed to extensive testing to ensure our drone delivery service is safe and reliable. Doing so involves meeting very high internal, technical, and regulatory bars," Nantel said. 

An FAA inspector spars with Amazon

To adhere to its timeline of unveiling drone delivery by 2024, Amazon needs a suite of FAA approvals within the next two years. The approvals would allow the drones to fly beyond the sight-lines of Prime Air operators and observers, over cities and towns, and to take off and land in close proximity to people, according to internal company documents obtained by Insider.

Obtaining those approvals requires the FAA to sign off on the drones' safety. Amazon, however, has insisted the FAA did not need to be involved in investigating the cause of some of its drone crashes, according to public records.

Last July, Amazon told an FAA inspector who had been sent to investigate crashes at Amazon's drone test site in Pendleton, Oregon, that the agency's involvement was unnecessary because Amazon was conducting its own crash investigations, the inspector, Jim Holden, wrote in notes appended to two crash reports. 

An FAA spokesperson said the agency has the ultimate authority to investigate aircraft crashes when it decides it is necessary to do so. Amazon's spokesperson did not respond to questions about jurisdiction over crash investigations.

The company also seemed reluctant to release details about crashes, Holden wrote. In one report, he noted that he was still waiting for "photos and information" about a crash a month after it occurred. Holden wrote in the same report that Amazon's representative had tried to put off the crash inspection by saying he had a dentist appointment.

In a separate report, Holden noted that he was prompted to make an in-person visit to the crash site in order to "remedy" Amazon's "slow and cautious release of details about incidents." 

Amazon was "confused as to why we are looking into" drone crashes "in so much detail," Holden wrote, speculating that "Amazon legal is likely communicating their concerns of our elevated involvement directly to FAA Headquarters personnel." An FAA spokesperson declined to comment on the agency's communications with Amazon. Reached by phone, Holden declined to respond to questions.

Amazon at least twice removed drone wreckage before the FAA could investigate, according to the documents. Last July, during an inspection related to a drone that had dropped 120 feet out of the sky, Holden asked to see the remains of the drone's motor and propeller, central and sensitive parts of the machine. He reported that the "motor and propeller had been removed by the engineers and sent to Seattle for THEM TO INVESTIGATE," the all-caps a departure from the style of the rest of his reports. 

Two months earlier, Amazon had also removed wreckage of a drone that had crashed due to a propeller failure. Investigation of that crash site "was not possible," the inspector noted in that instance, and reminded Amazon that crash debris "should not be disturbed or moved until after release of wreckage" by federal regulators. 

An Amazon spokesperson said it is now the company's practice to notify the FAA before moving crash wreckage. 

Motor and propeller failures have been the cause of many of Amazon's recent drone crashes, according to seven federal crash reports reviewed by Insider, as well as two former Prime Air employees. 

In the fiery crash last June, Amazon's 89-pound drone plummeted 160 feet to the ground "in uncontrolled free fall," according to an FAA crash report. An "intense lithium battery fire quickly consumed the aircraft," and the fire spread to the field where the drone had crash-landed, the report added. The municipal fire department contained the blaze, according to a fire report from the incident.

Companies and regulators expect some experimental aircraft to crash during testing, where the machines are pushed to their limits. "With rigorous testing like this, we expect incidents like these to occur, and we apply the learnings from each flight towards improving safety overall," Nantel said. Amazon tests its drones "over a controlled, unpopulated area," Nantel said, and "no people or property were harmed in the process." 

Internally, Prime Air recognizes that in order for autonomous drone delivery to catch on, customers must perceive it to be safe. "Safety is paramount" is the first of Prime Air's seven organizational tenets. 

Prime Air's first major public-facing test of its capabilities comes this fall, when the company expects to begin dropping Amazon packages to 1,300 test customers in Texas and California. Prime Air has previously only delivered packages to a handful of customers in a small-scale pilot program, largely in Oregon.

14 comments:

  1. Unbelievable. The FAA is not the enemy, business operators are. Business and private owners have a right to run and operate and manage their systems. They are required to follow requirements of operation. In Aviation, the FAA is the governing authority! The FAA is there for your Safety and the Safety of others. I spent 45 years in Aviation because I love it. Medical reasons ended it for me. Don't let failure to follow Regulations end it for you. I believe 65 % of Aviation related accidents are operator error. 12% are maintenance related.
    23% are weather related. Factors depend on type of operation. Not exact figures but, you get the idea. Only the ones not playing by the rules need to be concerned with the FAA.

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    1. You havent been living in the real world pal. I am glad big companies like Spacex and Amazon are realizing, and being vocal, about what we have seen as an inhibit to safe flying operations...THE FAA!

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    2. the FAA inhibited Spacex?? want one of those drones malfunctioning and taken a trip through your living room window?? the FAA may err on the side of caution, but they are not the enemy
      Imagine your world with NO FAA...

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  2. "Motor and propeller failures have been the cause of many of Amazon's recent drone crashes..." Do we really know that to be true and accurate? The FAA can make or break you, Amazon.

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  3. Sure, the FAA can make or break you, but remember it is run by humans, subject to the big bucks of corporations, like most politicians.

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  4. Watch as drone size keeps increasing and drone-style "Air Taxi" flights begin. It will be a necessity to routinely obscure daily crashes in order to make the business models a success. Same principle as not preventing wind power Bald Eagle slaughter, chalk it up to stuff happens.

    When drone deliveries get to several per hour going by, urban kids will be flinging Bola (two weights on a cord, like the kid used in Romancing The Stone) to earn some product fulfillment, harvesting "surprise gifts from the sky".

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  5. Amazon doesn't seem to be concerned about public safety. Like the Airlines it's a numbers game and the cost of lawsuits is just an operational given. Keep poking the bear and see were it gets you Jeff!

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  6. This will have a negative impact on GA as big business pushes their drones way into all areas of the system, much like they did with the FCC and wireless frequency bands.

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  7. just following the lead of pols and an ex-prez who refuse to cooperate.

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  8. Drone package delivery is an unsavory idea due to potential equipment problems, placing flying objects in the sky at low altitudes with potential collision factors and vandalism from those on the ground. Regardless of prop or motor failures there's the lithium battery fire hazard- objects on ground such as building roofs, etc.

    Exclusive of seriously injuring someone on the ground, or a drone exceeding 300-pounds or more going down,14 CFR Part 830, drone accidents caused by prop failures are to be reported to, and investigated by, the NTSB or its delegated partner, the FAA. 14 CFR Part 107 doesn't have this reporting requirement. Determining the possible cause of the accident is up to the authorities, not a corporate type.

    For Prime Air or whomever to remove wreckage of the drone before the FAA or NTSB examine the remains is a violation of the law. It's easy to accept one mistake like this, but numerous? Amazon or Prime Air should be given a hefty fine now for past behaviors and even heftier fines should they pull that stunt again.

    The NTSB and/or FAA should advise both corporate entities of current and future fines as a means to get their attention and compliance with the appropriate regulations.

    The one fly in the safety/investigation ointment is money which begets corporate and political power and potential pressure from the 'powerful' to back off. Don't say this doesn't happen... it does and it's shameful.

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    1. As a practical matter, the downed drone needs to get picked up before the local kids salvage the wreck. FAA will let Amazon box up the wrecks for turn in once things are in full swing and everyone gets acclimated.

      People who make money charging E-scooters would be happy to pick up the wreck retrieval work as a side gig add on. Gotta get with the new fourth industrial revolution mindset we keep hearing about.

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  9. High interest in drones (with how many passengers on board? Yes-zero!)
    Absolute refusal to enforce duty time rules for 135 crews.
    That is the FAA.

    Parenthetical statement not meant to say that drones present no hazard, I came too close for comfort to one while flying, don't want one falling on me, and for some reason don't really care for the things.
    The high interest in drones, and virtually complete ignorance of other FAR's that do matter is odd. Some people were actually paid to write them! Enforce them, or get rid of them!

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  10. No problem, Amazon will just pay off the FAA and the issue is solved. Approval done!

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    1. Anon- yes, something very close to that! The local FSDO is very friendly with the operators in question. And that is not a compliment, in this case.
      FAR's fall in and out of vogue with them, I guess drones are interesting or trendy these days, and get the attention. Duty time=dull. Not worth attention even when asked directly, "please enforce." Isn't that weird?

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