A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 7, 2021

What Caused the Collapse of Amazon's Drone Delivery Business?

Amazon leaders underestimated the challenges of getting AI-driven drones to drop packages at customers' homes from a few feet off the ground. 

Headquarters was not interested in explanations or changing strategy, which led to constant turnover and failure to achieve objectives. At some point in the past year, most of the staff were laid off or reassigned. JL 

Andrew Kersley reports in Wired:

Cracks began to show in Prime Air in 2019 amid constant reshuffling of workers and managers. Workers claim there was constant churn. Frequent hiring sprees, mostly through temp agencies, bolstered the data analysis team. Many lifelong Amazon managers in warehouse operations had little to no knowledge of the technicalities of the project. Engineers had to figure out how to make drones land outside people’s homes and deposit a package from barely above the ground. “The hard bit is the last two metres off the ground. It’s astonishing what machine learning can do, but it’s also astonishing what it gets wrong."

Well over 100 employees at Amazon Prime Air have lost their jobs and dozens of other roles are moving to other projects abroad as the company shutters part of its operation in the UK, WIRED understands. Insiders claim the future of the UK operation, which launched in 2016 to help pioneer Amazon’s global drone delivery efforts, is now uncertain.

Those working on the UK team in the last few years, who spoke on condition of anonymity, describe a project that was “collapsing inwards”, “dysfunctional” and resembled “organised chaos”, run by managers that were “detached from reality” in the years building up to the mass redundancies.

They told WIRED about increasing problems within Prime Air in recent years, including managers being appointed who knew so little about the project they couldn’t answer basic work questions, an employee drinking beer at their desk in the morning and some staff being forced to train their replacements in Costa Rica. Amazon says it still has staff working for Prime Air in the UK, but has refused to confirm headcount.

Just five years ago, Prime Air’s UK operations were at the centre of a frenzied public relations campaign, with Amazon executives claiming that drones would be delivering packages within a few years. The company offered tours of its secret drone lab to local schools, opened a huge new office in Cambridge and released an array of promotional videos for the flights that received millions of views. UK regulators also fast-tracked approvals for drone testing, which made the country an ideal testbed for drone flights and paved the way for Amazon to gain regulatory approval elsewhere.

But in the intervening years the tours stopped, the promotional videos were unlisted from Amazon’s YouTube channel and, bar occasional promises from executives like Jeff Wilke that delivery drones would become a reality “within months”, the firm’s previously widespread PR campaign disappeared. Meanwhile, despite being one of the first big companies to show interest in drones, Amazon was overtaken by Alphabet-owned Wing and UPS in the race for US regulatory approval. Now, half a decade after first conducting UK test flights, the project’s entire UK data analysis team is being made redundant.

An Amazon spokesperson says it will still have a Prime Air presence in the UK after the cuts, but refuses to disclose what type of work will take place. The spokesperson also refused to confirm, citing security reasons, if any of the test flights that once filled promotional videos will still take place in the UK. The spokesperson adds that the company has found positions in other parts of its business for some affected employees and that it will keep growing its presence in the region. The spokesperson did not confirm how many employees were offered other jobs internally.

Insiders say that cracks first began to show in the Prime Air project in late 2019 amid a constant reshuffling of workers and managers. At the time, the drone team was segmented into three divisions that analysed footage for different threats: humans and animals, other man-made objects in the sky and 3D mapping, which helped drones know the difference between a lawn, and say, a swimming pool. Frequent hiring sprees, mostly through temp agencies, bolstered the data analysis team, which made up a large chunk of Prime Air’s UK operations in Cambridge.The department was tasked with manually going through test flight footage and identifying relevant threats or objects – essentially using machine learning to train Amazon drones.

In those final months of 2019, former workers claim there was near constant churn, from entry level employees to managers. One former employee described having three different managers in the space of one month as staff and senior members of the team were reshuffled or moved out of the Prime Air project.

Those management exits increasingly started to include senior managers, like Tom Denlegh-Maxwell, who had been with the project since its inception and left in December 2019. “There was a point when they did bring in four or five new managers [into my team] all at once,” one former employee explains. “And a lot of managers were leaving quite quickly, often within a year of joining Prime Air.” Another compares the exodus to “rats off a [sinking] ship”.

They also say that many of the newly appointed people were lifelong Amazon managers who specialised in logistics or warehouse operations and had little to no knowledge of the technicalities of the work being done in the project. The former employees WIRED spoke to say they could never approach managers for help with any kind of technical problems on the project, because they did not know how to help them.

While all this was happening, engineers were trying to do something unprecedented. While other drone companies aim to drop packages from several meters in the air or from even higher using parachutes, Amazon engineers had to figure out how to make drones land outside people’s homes and deposit a package from barely above the ground.

Building such a system was a huge engineering and machine learning challenge. The systems required to make drones land outside people’s homes were heavy and Amazon’s drones ballooned to about 27 kilograms, according to Andreas Raptopoulos, CEO of drone company Matternet, which is heavier than the threshold used by some authorities to classify a small drone. Entering that higher weight category comes with a variety of extra regulations, including higher safety requirements to protect people on the ground from potential collisions. “The hard bit is the last two metres off the ground. It’s astonishing what machine learning can do, but it’s also astonishing what it gets wrong,” says professor Arthur Richards, head of aerial robotics at the Bristol Robotics Lab.

As Prime Air grappled with these issues, they soon hit other, less technical problems. Insiders describe how the parameters for the project regularly changed with no explanation – for example being told to avoid identifying people standing behind windows in drone footage, and then told to do the opposite. Another source says their only contact with the central office was an American executive, who would visit every few months, buy the team pizza and then ask them to double their workload, without any explanation or answering any questions. “The best living metaphor for it all is that you had some bloke on the other side of the planet telling you what to do and then just leaving,” the source claims. “When you have that little communication between people in an organisation I don’t know how you expect anything to get done.”

In February 2020, WIRED understands the entire human and animals data analysis team in the UK, which employed dozens of people, was shuttered and its staff reassigned to other teams. Three months later it was reopened and restaffed three months later. “It was definitely very dysfunctional and there was definitely a lot of disorganisation,” says the former employee. “There was a lot of decision making made in the moment without long term thought to it. It was almost slinging shit at the wall and hoping stuff would stick.” Another former employee says it felt like the project was in a constant state of “organised chaos”.

At around the same time Amazon began restructuring and triggering job losses, as managers admitted in a stand-up meeting for data analysts that the promise of permanent employment was no longer on the table for those currently on precarious contracts, crushing the team’s already battered morale.

“It was a Monday and it was about 11am or 12pm and this guy just had this open can of Stella,” explains one former employee. “He took it out of a fridge and popped it open at his desk.” Another describes an employee pinning down the ‘approve’ button on their computer so that all the frames of footage were being approved irrelevant of whether there were hazards in them or not. “Everything started collapsing inwards because they [Amazon] piled too much on, they put people in charge who didn’t know anything about the project and they oversold. It’s all one gigantic oversell – just so many promises that can’t be kept,” one former employee says. An Amazon spokesperson says safety is a top priority for the drone project and that it has rigorous procedures in place to check the work of employees and that swift action was taken in any cases of misconduct.

The former employee cited a different stand-up meeting in early 2020 that was pitched as a chance for short-term contracted employees to ask questions about the lack of permanent opportunities. Instead, the source claims, it turned out to be a seminar on how contractors could describe their jobs in their CVs without breaking non-disclosure agreements. “It was a good example of how detached from reality they were,” they say. “It wasn’t trying to help you out, it was just covering their own backsides.”

Amazon says its regulatory clearance in the US, which was greeted with fanfare and speculation about an oncoming future of automated drone delivery last summer, will allow it to start conducting new test flights in the country. But that same clearance and ability to conduct test flights has been in place in the UK since 2016 and has yet to deliver a fleet of working drones. An Amazon spokesperson did not clarify how test flights happening in the US would be substantially different from those that had already happened in the UK.

Raptopoulos says that promises of mass market e-commerce drone delivery happening within months, or even a couple of years, are far from reality. “Can we cross the next bridge to mass e-commerce delivery? I would see it in the later half of the decade – 2027 or 2028,” he explains. “When people say five or so years, they tend to mean ‘I’m not sure, but not right now’.”

Throughout the rest of 2020 and into 2021, more Prime Air staff in the UK were either phased out from short term contracts or made redundant. Staff say they were also told to train their replacements in Costa Rica. Amazon has not confirmed whether there will be further redundancies in the UK, nor whether its plans for a global Prime Air project will involve further outsourcing. And, after years of disruption, some insiders doubt whether Amazon will ever realise its drone delivery dreams. “When I was there Prime Air was already years from being a thing,” explains one of the former employees. “But it’s never going to get off the ground.”


Post a Comment