Ed Pilkington in British Columbia
Amazon is testing its drone delivery service at a secret site in Canada, following repeated warnings by the e-commerce giant that it would go outside the US to bypass what it sees as the US federal government’s lethargic approach to the new technology.
The largest internet retailer in the world is keeping the location of its new test site closely guarded. What can be revealed is that the company’s formidable team of roboticists, software engineers, aeronautics experts and pioneers in remote sensing – including a former Nasa astronaut and the designer of the wingtip of the Boeing 787 – are now operating in British Columbia.
The end goal is to utilise what Amazon sees as a slice of virgin airspace – above 200ft, where most buildings end, and below 500ft, where general aviation begins. Into that aerial slice the company plans to pour highly autonomous drones of less than 55lbs, flying through corridors 10 miles or longer at 50mph and carrying payloads of up to 5lbs that account for 86% of all the company’s packages.
Amazon has acquired a plot of open land lined by oak trees and firs, where it is conducting frequent experimental flights with the full blessing of the Canadian government. As if to underline the significance of the move, the test site is barely 2,000ft from the US border, which was clearly visible from where the Guardian stood on a recent visit.
The Guardian was invited to visit Amazon’s previously undisclosed Canadian drone test site, where it has been conducting outdoor flights for the past few months. For the duration of the visit, three plain-clothed security guards kept watch from the surrounding hills.
Amazon’s drone visionaries are taking the permissive culture on the Canadian side of the border and using it to fine-tune the essential features of what they hope will become a successful delivery-by-drone system. The Guardian witnessed tests of a hybrid drone that can take off and land vertically as well as fly horizontally.