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Amazon’s Delivery Drones Won’t Fly in Arizona’s Summer Heat

May 7, 2024 6:00 AM

Amazon’s Delivery Drones Won’t Fly in Arizona’s Summer Heat

Amazon’s newest delivery drones will take off from just outside Phoenix, but don’t count on rush-ordering a fan on a hot day. The fleet can’t fly when the temperature exceeds 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Photo of one of Amazon's drones in the sky above College Station Texas.

Photograph: Callaghan O'Hare/The New York Times/Redux

Amazon plans to start flying delivery drones in Arizona this year—but don't count on them to bring you a refreshing drink on a hot day. The hexacopter can’t operate when temperatures top 104 degrees Fahrenheit, or 40 degrees Celsius, the company says, and average daily highs exceed that for three months of the year in Tolleson, the city outside Phoenix where Amazon is preparing to offer aerial deliveries from inside a 7.5-mile radius. The drones can’t help with midnight snacks either, because they’ll be grounded after sunset.

Potentially being inoperable for a quarter of the year might make launching drone deliveries in Tolleson and neighboring desert communities seem like an odd choice. It’s far from the first challenge faced by Amazon’s much-delayed drone project. The unit is years behind its goals of flying items to customers in under an hour on a regular basis, and a one-time target of 500 million deliveries by 2030 seems distant. Amazon Prime Air has completed just thousands of deliveries, falling behind rivals; Alphabet subsidiary Wing has notched hundreds of thousands of delivery flights and Walmart more than 20,000.

In the California wine country town of Lockeford, where Amazon initially launched drone deliveries, some residents told WIRED last year that they ordered only because Amazon lured them with gift cards. In Arizona, it could be discouraging not being able to rely on drones during those hours when one might not want to venture too far from the comfort of air conditioning.

A blog post last month announcing the Tolleson plans described the drone program as “entering into the next stage” because, for the first time, the craft will take off from an existing same-day delivery site. That would integrate drones more closely with Amazon’s established delivery business and enable customers to choose from a wider selection of items than at previous drone sites, although they must still weigh less than 5 pounds.

Before its drones start making deliveries, Amazon has more than summer heat to contend with. The company needs to obtain some local permits to renovate its Tolleson warehouse to host and operate the drones. The US Federal Aviation Administration has to sign off on Amazon’s operating plans for its new drone, known as the MK30, which the online shopping giant wants to use in Arizona. And after all that, Amazon must persuade users to sign up to have an 80-pound, six-rotor drone flying into their yard to drop a box from several feet up onto the giant QR code mat that the craft uses to identify a customer’s drop-off point.

That temperature and other environmental conditions could ground or hamper the drone industry has been known for years. A team from University of Calgary’s geography department estimated that on average across the world, drones with limitations similar to Amazon’s, including from weather and daylight, would be limited to flying about 2 hours a day. In the world’s 100 most populous cities, the average daily flight time would be 6 hours. “Weather is an important and poorly resolved factor that may affect ambitions to expand drone operations,” they wrote in a study published in 2021. Heat, in particular, forces motors to work harder to keep drones aloft, and their batteries are only so powerful.

How Amazon's service fares in the desert could end up underscoring the natural barriers to making a solid business out of drone deliveries, at least absent technological advances. “We won't take orders when the temperature gets above 104 degrees,” Calsee Hendrickson, a director of product and program management for Amazon Prime Air, told Phoenix’s 12News in a broadcast interview late last month. “We realize that is going to limit some of our operations in the afternoon hours in the summertime, but you'll still be able to get your packages in the morning.”

Asked for comment for this story, Amazon spokesperson Sam Stephenson told WIRED that the company’s “plans for Tolleson include regular deliveries during the summer months so customers can shop with drone delivery year-round. Any claim to the contrary is wrong.” Stephenson did not dispute that Arizona's summer climate would limit delivery periods.

Unique Climate

Amazon met virtually with Tolleson officials a year ago to begin the process of vetting the city as a potential drone site. Tolleson’s economic development director signed a nondisclosure agreement last March barring the city from talking about the discussions, according to a copy WIRED obtained through a public records request.

At a city council meeting last month after Amazon unveiled its plans, Tolleson Mayor Juan Rodriguez said the company chose the West Valley city out of 1,000 options, according to the city’s transcript of the session. Amazon representatives at the meeting donated $12,500 to a local nonprofit that helps fund education and basic aid initiatives and posed for a photo with an oversize check, Rodriguez, and other local leaders .

Drone delivery proponents such as Rodriguez tout its potential to take vehicles—and the emissions and accidents that come with them—off the road. For consumers, under an hour from order to delivery can be an attractive proposition for items that are suddenly needed at home ASAP, or to fulfill whimsical desires.

No organized opposition to the drone plans in Arizona has emerged so far. But in other communities where Amazon and other drone delivery programs have tested, local residents have worried about noise pollution from the buzzing machines, along with the potential for them to become surveillance tools—though leading operators say that’s not their intention.

As one Tolleson city council member asked at last month’s meeting, the potential loss of driving jobs to the flying bots can also be concerning. For now, Amazon’s project will see the company add to its staff of 750 full- or part-time employees in Tolleson, hiring personnel to watch over the four drones that could be flying at once, a company representative told the council. But as the technology matures and regulations ease, so could manual oversight.

The MK30 drone that Amazon is seeking permission for is smaller and lighter than its predecessors, with more sensors and software to navigate around obstructions and into denser areas on the preplanned routes it would fly. It can venture out up to about 7.5 miles from its home base, hit a maximum speed of around 65 miles per hour, and soar as high as 400 feet in the air. Light rain shouldn’t be a problem.

Other cities with drone deliveries have been more temperate. Weather data compiled by Time and Date show summertime daily highs tend to average under 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or 38 degrees Celsius, in College Station, Texas, where Amazon has ongoing drone operations, and Lockeford, where Amazon last month said it is giving up on drones. Alphabet’s Wing locations in Australia and Texas have similar climates.

Amazon has said it is eyeing expansion to Italy, as well as a return to the UK this year after abruptly winding down large parts of its project there in 2021. Scorching temperatures also shouldn’t be a season-long issue in those countries.

Rodriguez, Tolleson’s mayor, couldn’t be more excited about the drones and the boost in sales tax revenue if they increase shipments out of his city. “They're pretty awesome, to be honest with you,” he told fellow council members about the drones, citing his deep dive into the technology on YouTube. It seems Amazon could have at least one eager customer—weather permitting.

Paresh Dave is a senior writer for WIRED, covering the inner workings of big tech companies. He writes about how apps and gadgets are built and about their impacts, while giving voice to the stories of the underappreciated and disadvantaged. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and the Los Angeles Times,… Read more
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