Amazon has shown off its top-secret drone lab in Cambridge for the first time.
The internet retail giant invited local newspaper The Cambridge News inside the research and development (R&D) centre, situated on Castle Park business estate, along with eight students from Steeple Morden Primary School.
The drones are being developed for Amazon’s Prime Air Service – a programme that would enable the company to deliver 2kg packages up to 15 miles in less than 30 minutes using drones that can fly up to 50mph.
During the visit, the nine and 10-year-olds were shown a number of Amazon’s drone prototypes, as well as some of the equipment that’s being used to develop parts for them. They were also shown individual drone components, including different types of batteries and wing designs.
The photos published by Cambridge News show that the R&D facility, branded simply as “The Lab,” contains green Amazon Prime Air logos, as well as 3D printers, work benches, neon lights, and wooden crates.
Amazon also has drone development labs in Austria, Israel, and the US – but the Cambridge facility is believed to be one of the biggest and most important, based on the fact that the Prime Air initiative was conceived in the city.
The drones will use GPS coordinates to locate their delivery address and fly to a maximum height of 400ft, before identifying a marker to land at. They will be automated but will each be monitored by a safety operator on the ground who will eventually watch several drones at the same time.
The Cambridge facility is located approximately eight miles away from Amazon’s largest outdoor drone test site, which was discovered by Business Insider in August.
In July, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) lifted UK drone flying restrictions to allow Amazon to start testing its drones, which will rely on sensors to spot and avoid objects that they could collide with.
The test site, which has angered some of the locals, has been shrouded by hay bails since our visit. Interestingly, Cambridge News reports that the test site in Cambridge is one of “a number” across the country. Where those other test sites are is a mystery at this stage.
The children that attended the lab were also given the opportunity to fly some drones, although it’s not clear if these were Amazon-developed drones or commercially available drones. It’s also not clear where the drone flying took place.
Kristen Kish, corporate communications for Prime Air, told Cambridge News: “We’re continuing to do more and more in Cambridgeshire. It’s continuing to be an area of significance and importance for Amazon. We want to get the talent and want to encourage science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with students here, it’s just so important we’re promoting that science.
“The community is so important to us. We’re continuing to expand our opportunities here and wanted to bring people in.
“We love the UK, we have a really strong base here in the UK and a lot of opportunity here, our customers are fantastic. Cambridge is a hub of innovation, it has a long history of doing amazing things. For us it really made good sense – there is fantastic talent here too.”
It’s not clear when Amazon expects to start using drones for deliveries but in order for Amazon’s Prime Air Service to become a reality, the company will first of all have to convince regulators that the drones are safe.
Amazon is also promising to show the lab to another group of school children through a competition where they will have to design their own drones.