Amazon's Prime Air drone, revealed five years ago, faces an uncertain future

Credit: Amazon

Amazon has cut back its Cambridge drone delivery project, shooting down hopes of airborne package drop-offs in the near future.

The US technology giant has reportedly slashed up to 100 staff at its Prime Air division, many of them in Cambridge, where the online retailer has been testing unmanned drone deliveries from a secret airfield.

The $1.7 trillion (£1.2 trillion) company has reassigned many of the team who had worked on the Prime Air project, originally announced in 2013, Wired magazine reported. 

Amazon set up a base in the UK for the project and secured special permission from the Civil Aviation Authority to test its drones in 2016. It made its first trial delivery on December 7 and at the time promised to launch a small pilot service to dozens of homes.

However, there have been few updates on the secretive project in the UK since then. 

In 2019, Amazon revealed an autonomous drone design in Las Vegas, promising that it would be delivering “within months”. It was not until September 2020 that Amazon received permission from US authorities to begin wider tests.

Insiders at Amazon’s UK Prime Air division told Wired the project was “never going to get off the ground” and had dissolved into “organised chaos”.

Some projects were relocated to the US or Costa Rica, while an analysis of LinkedIn shows a slew of machine learning experts and flight operators leaving the division in June and July.

An Amazon Prime Air drone

A Civil Aviation Authority spokesman said Amazon still had permission to experiment with drones in the UK but declined to comment further. Amazon remains a member of the CAA’s “sandbox” drone test programme.

Industry insiders said Amazon had made progress on the technology behind its drones, but flying them “beyond visible line of sight” over the horizon remains strictly regulated by the CAA, with commercial launches still some way off in the UK. 

One source claimed regulators were struggling to keep up with the pace of innovation from drone makers.

Amazon declined to comment on the size of the scale of the cuts to its Cambridge division. 

An Amazon spokesman said: “We recently made organisational changes in our Prime Air business and were able to find positions for affected employees in other areas where we were hiring. 

“We remain committed to our Development Centre in Cambridge, UK, where Amazon has hundreds of talented engineers, research scientists, and technology experts working across a range of innovations. Prime Air continues to have employees in the UK and will keep growing its presence in the region.”