Amazon delivery drones get a new look

Two years on from its unveiling, Amazon Prime Air now features a sleeker, smarter unmanned aircraft. When it will be cleared for takeoff remains anyone's guess.

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Amazon's hybrid drone behaves as both a helicopter and airplane.


Whenever Amazon's Prime Air plan finally gets off the ground, watch for more than just one type of drone coming to your doorstep.

The e-commerce powerhouse has unveiled a new design for its delivery drones, nearly two years to the day after it first teased us with its ambitions for the diminutive and unmanned aerial vehicles.

In a video posted to YouTube on Sunday (embedded below), Amazon showed off a sleeker, smarter prototype drone it hopes to use to deliver small packages to customers in less than 30 minutes. Unlike a previous demonstration offered by Amazon that showed packages being carried below the drone, the new video shows the prototype accepting a package into its fuselage before delivery.

Retailers such as Amazon and Walmart are continually looking for new ways to get a jump on the competition and attract customers. Speedy delivery is one method -- or, in Amazon's case, many methods. The Seattle-based company is building out its Prime Now service, which aims for one- or two-hour deliveries of certain goods, and in September it kicked off a program that lets everyday folks, not just delivery professionals, cart packages to consumers' homes.

Small, commercial aerial drones, meanwhile, could avoid the delays of terrestrial deliveries by flying above traffic and avoiding circuitous roadways.

In the new video, Amazon's "hybrid" drone is shown taking off vertically like a helicopter and then switching to a more airplane-like flight. Using "sense and avoid" technology, it can avoid obstacles in the air and on the ground for a range of 15 miles, Amazon said.

"In time there will be a whole family of Amazon drones, different designs for different environments," said Jeremy Clarkson, the former "Top Gear" host who presents the video, and who will front a new car show on Amazon Video.

Amazon made a splash in December 2013 when it announced it was testing its Prime Air delivery service. The aircraft at that time featured an "octocopter" design, similar to that found in a number of recreational drones, meant to deliver shoebox-sized packages. The service can't take off, however, until the US Federal Aviation Administration figures out how it will regulate unmanned aircraft when they're used for commercial purposes.

The creation of new drones and the interest in using them commercially has exploded in the past few years. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International claims the first three years of integration of drones in the US skies will create more than 70,000 jobs and create an economic impact of $13.6 billion.

Even as the FAA enforces its ban on unlicensed commercial drone operations, it is working on rules to permit the use of drones without businesses having to secure specific permission. It has released draft regulations but missed a September deadline to finalize those rules.

Amazon is working with regulators and policymaker to make the delivery service a reality as soon as possible, an Amazon spokeswoman said Sunday evening.

"We will deploy when and where we have the regulatory support needed to safely realize our vision," Kristen Kish said.

Updated at 6:20 p.m. PT with comment from Amazon.