Amazon and Rural Deliveries – the Story Behind the Story

Amazon recently revealed that it was planning to undertake more rural and super-rural deliveries, replacing USPS and UPS with its own service. The cutely named “Wagon Wheel” project is on the surface completely ridiculous. It makes no real sense for Amazon to compete in precisely the places that are most expensive and least profitable. Indeed, to date it has avoided those routes like the plague.

So what’s going on?

In September the FAA finally permitted Amazon to begin  testing drone deliveries, something that it’s been working on for a while. Amazon Air aims to deliver packages of up to 5 pounds via aerial drone. But FAA approval came with significant limitations. Amazon can now make actual deliveries to real customers, but only where drones will not fly over vehicles, people , or buildings, until it can show that its drone program is safe. And safety is an issue – Amazon drones are 88 pounds each and they fly 400 feet up. A failure would be like a lawnmower falling out of the sky.

Rural and super-rural areas are where those conditions apply, so that’s obviously where Amazon is planning to test its technology. Hence Wagon Wheels, and hence the surprising focus on rural areas. It seems likely that if the program is successful and the FAA loosens restrictions, Amazon will shift its attention to the true point of attack: deliveries in suburbs. If it works, maybe you’ll see those Amazon Air drones bombarding your lawn with packages in a couple for years.

A final note. As always, Amazon is incredibly secretive. Boeing complained to the Federal Aviation Administration that Amazon’s petition does not adequately describe “the reliability standards for the sensors and algorithms upon which the system is dependent, and it does not describe the data sources and associated data fidelity for flight planning, terrain mapping, or object identification.” In other words, no-one except the FAA and Amazon knows what’s going on. And the FAA has not been winning any awards for reliability itself recently.