For proving that the sky is not the limit.
The first item that shipped via Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery system, was a Kindle. Team leaders Gur Kimchi and Daniel Buchmueller chose it for its compact size, but the symbolism in this test flight was clear: If the Kindle revolutionized Amazon’s business by enabling the company to deliver goods digitally, Prime Air could bring that same level of instant gratification to the physical world. In December, Amazon unveiled Prime Air on 60 Minutes, wowing viewers with its portrayal of a future where unmanned aerial vehicles zip around the sky ferrying parcels to your door in 30 minutes. Right now, the system isn’t ready for market, and some have called it a PR stunt, considering the questions left unanswered: How would drones deliver in big cities or bad weather? But Kimchi and Buchmueller say it demonstrates Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s appetite for bold bets. “The culture here allows you to be creative without being constrained by what’s possible,” Kimchi says. “For every project like Prime Air that you know about, we probably have 100 more that you don’t.”
As with many ideas in Seattle, this one was hatched over coffee. On a rainy day last year (Amazon, oddly, wouldn’t confirm when), Kimchi and Buchmueller were at a coffeehouse in Seattle’s South Lake Union when they started discussing the potential for a drone delivery system. “Getting stuff into customers’ hands in 30 minutes or less is this mythical point that only pizza companies have achieved,” Kimchi says. The inevitable next step of delivery, according to Buchmueller, was to “look to the sky.”
The pursuit would involve geospatial know-how, which, as it happened, both possessed. Buchmueller served in the Swiss army for six years, in electronic warfare and communications intelligence, while Kimchi served as a board member at Waze, the social-mapping startup Google recently acquired. The pair have a passion for aviation and worked together for years at Microsoft, developing its next-gen Bing location services.
At Amazon, in an R&D lab filled with 3-D printers, chalkboards, an espresso maker, and the ever-present smell of epoxy glue, the two engineers began cranking on the idea that would become Prime Air. Buchmueller had built drones as a hobby and was unimpressed with commercially available technology, such as Parrot’s popular AR.Drone Quadricopter. “I was on vacation in Switzerland when I used a Parrot outside, and the wind blew it into the side of a building,” he says. They aimed to develop a more robust drone with eight rotors for increased stability. The resulting craft can navigate autonomously via GPS and carry a payload of 5 pounds, a promising start considering that 86% of Amazon’s inventory fits into that weight class.
During their months of experimentation, Kimchi swears the duo “never felt like we had to ask Jeff for permission.” But at some point, the idea caught the attention of Bezos, who made a big splash by unveiling Prime Air on national television. In the clip, which has been viewed more than 14 million times on YouTube, an Amazon drone picks up a package at a fulfillment center and flies off to a customer’s home. “I showed it to my kids and said, ‘Hey, this is what I do at work!’ They were like, ‘Cool! Can we [come] see it?’ ” Kimchi recalls. “I was like, ‘Nope!’ ”
Prime Air, the pair say, will be ready for when the FAA issues regulation on commercial drone systems, expected as early as 2015. “The difference between science fiction and reality is not as distinct as it used to be,” Kimchi says. But then he stops short. “Well, there’s still time travel. I can announce that Amazon is not working on time travel.”
Well, not yet.