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Amazon says it will launch drone deliveries this year in Lockeford, California

Amazon Prime customers in Lockeford, California, will start receiving package deliveries by drone later this year, Amazon announced Monday. That would make the community of 3,500 among the first U.S. locations to enjoy free drone delivery within 30 minutes — a promise that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos first made nearly a decade ago.

The e-commerce company started contacting customers in Lockeford this week to ask them to opt in to drone delivery, said Amazon spokesperson Av Zammit. Once a customer enrolls, an Amazon employee will visit to make sure their yard has enough clear space to accept drone deliveries, Zammit added.

Drone delivery will be free for Prime members, and only Prime members can use the service. There will be "thousands of items available" for drone delivery, Zammit said, while declining to offer more details.

Amazon said it was working with the Federal Aviation Administration and local regulators to secure permits for the program, according to a blog post that also touted Lockeford as a site for flight experiments.

"Lockeford residents will play an important role in defining the future. Their feedback about Prime Air, with drones delivering packages in their backyards, will help us create a service that will safely scale to meet the needs of customers everywhere," the blog post stated, predicting that drone deliveries "could one day become just as common as seeing an Amazon delivery van pull up outside your house."

Amazon received FAA approval for its commercial drone-delivery program in 2020. However, drones often have to deal with local and state regulations as well as federal rules, not to mention concerns from neighborhood and community groups in some areas.

Walmart launches on-demand drone deliveries 02:39

Walmart, UPS readying their drones

Amazon is largely responsible for setting off the current race to commercialize drone package delivery, according to Zak Stambor, senior analyst of retail and ecommerce at Insider Intelligence. When Bezos laid out his vision for drones to 60 Minutes in 2013, "He spurred everyone else to move into that space," Stambor said.

Other large retailers and technology companies are now developing their own drone programs. Walmart started testing drone delivery last year in Arkansas and plans to expand to sites across six states this year. Alphabet's drone delivery program, called Wing, launched this summer near Dallas-Fort Worth, delivering prescriptions, pet medication and ice cream. UPS is also developing a drone service.

Amazon's own drone program has been beset with delays and staff churn, according to media reports. At least eight Amazon drones have crashed over the past year, and the Prime Air division is experiencing 71% staff turnover, Business Insider reported in March. A Bloomberg News investigation in April concluded that despite spending $2 billion to develop the program and hiring more than 1,000 workers, "Amazon is a long way from launching a drone delivery service."

Amazon's most recent drone model, with six rotors, designed for stability.

Rising energy costs and a tight labor market are heightening retailers' current interest in drones, said Stambor.

"You can see why drone delivery would make sense, in a moment when there's a labor shortage, it's really hard to hire truck drivers. For example, gas prices are rising and show no end in sight," Stambor said. 

But drone delivery also faces "a host of challenges, in terms of, largely, safety and costs," making it unclear if drones can solve current logistical bottlenecks, he said.  

Drone delivery is much more expensive than delivery by truck and also requires a trained operator, Stambor said. One internal Amazon estimate puts the cost of an airlifted package at $63, compared to about $5 when the same package is shipped by a third-party carrier like UPS or the U.S. Post Office.

Insider Intelligence estimates that the fleet of delivery drones will number 39,000 this year, and 69,000 next year.

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