[editor’s note of Tencent technology] UAV is being applied to more and more fields, such as surveying and mapping, agriculture, military, etc., and UAV delivery is regarded as the future development trend by logistics companies and e-commerce platforms. As early as 2016, retail giant Amazon announced the launch of prime air UAV delivery business and promised to deliver it to the door within 30 minutes. However, five years have passed, and Amazon’s dream of unmanned delivery seems to be gradually fading.
It is reported that more than 100 employees of Amazon Prime air have lost their jobs. With the company closing some businesses in the UK, dozens of other employees are being transferred to other overseas projects. Insiders said that the future of Amazon Prime air’s UK business is uncertain. The Department was established in 2016 to help Amazon carry out UAV delivery efforts worldwide.
Anonymous employees working on the prime air UK team over the past few years claimed that the project seemed to be “collapsing inward”, “dysfunctional” and “falling into chaos”. These projects were managed by managers who were “divorced from reality” a few years before the massive layoffs.
These people said that prime air had more and more problems in recent years, including that the appointed manager knew little about the project and was unable to answer basic work questions. In addition, some employees drink beer at their desks in the morning, and some employees are forced to train successors in Costa Rica. Another employee treated the ‘approve’ button as a mechanical operation so that all videos were approved regardless of whether there was a danger. Amazon said it still had many employees working for prime air in the UK, but declined to confirm the exact number.
Just five years ago, prime air’s UK business was at the center of a crazy public relations campaign. Amazon executives boasted that drones would be used to deliver packages within a few years. The company provided local schools with access to its secret UAV laboratory, opened a huge new office in Cambridge, and released a series of promotional videos on UAV flight, which received millions of hits. British regulators also accelerated the approval of UAV test, which makes the UK an ideal test site for UAV flight and paves the way for Amazon to obtain regulatory approval elsewhere.
But soon, these promotional videos disappeared from Amazon’s YouTube channel. In addition to Jeff Wilke and other executives occasionally promising that UAV delivery will become a reality “within a few months”, the company’s previous extensive public relations activities also disappeared. At the same time, although Amazon is one of the first large companies to show strong interest in drone delivery, Amazon has been overtaken by wing and ups of alphabet in the competition for approval from U.S. regulators. Now, five years after the first British test flight, the entire British data analysis team of the project has been laid off.
An Amazon spokesman said that after the layoffs, the company would still retain the prime air business in the UK, but declined to disclose what type of work it would carry out. The spokesman also declined to confirm for security reasons whether the test flight once full of propaganda will still be carried out in the UK. The spokesman added that the company had found jobs for some affected employees in other business departments and would continue to expand its business in the region. The spokesman did not confirm how many employees were offered other internal jobs.
Insiders said that cracks began to appear in the prime air project at the end of 2019, when employees and managers were constantly reorganized. The UAV team is divided into three departments to analyze different shots, including people and animals, other man-made objects in the sky and 3D drawings. The latter helps UAVs distinguish between lawns and swimming pools. Frequent recruitment strengthens the data analysis team, which is a core part of prime air’s UK business. The task of the Department is to manually view the flight test lens and identify relevant threats or objects. Basically, it uses machine learning to train Amazon UAV.
In the last few months of 2019, some former employees claimed that the Department was always in a state of brain drain from entry-level employees to managers. A former employee described that within a month, three different managers chose to leave as the employees and senior members of the team were reorganized or moved out of the prime air project.
The withdrawal of these executives also affected more people, even including senior managers such as Tom denlegh Maxwell, who worked in the Department since the beginning of the project and left in December 2019. A former employee explained: “for a while, they did introduce four or five new managers into my team at the same time, but many managers left soon, usually within a year of joining prime air.” Another compares this trend to “a mouse on a sinking ship”.
They also said that many of the newly appointed people are lifelong managers of Amazon, specializing in logistics or warehouse operations, and know little or nothing about the technical details of the project being developed. These former employees said in an interview that they can never ask the manager for help on any technical problems in the project because they don’t know how to help them.
At the same time, engineers are trying to do something unprecedented. Although the goal of other UAV companies is to use parachutes to drop packages from places several meters high or higher, Amazon engineers must figure out how to land UAVs outside people’s homes and store packages close to the ground.
Building such a system faces great engineering and machine learning challenges. Andreas raptopoulos, CEO of matternet, a UAV company, said that it is very heavy to develop UAV systems that can land outside people’s homes. The weight of Amazon’s UAV has increased to about 27 kg, far exceeding the threshold for some institutions to classify small UAVs.
Entering the higher weight category is accompanied by various additional regulations, including higher safety requirements, to protect people on the ground from potential collision threats. Professor Arthur Richards, head of Aerial Robotics at Bristol Robotics Lab, said: “the most difficult thing is how to make the UAV hover two meters above the ground. The ability of machine learning is amazing, but its mistakes are also helpless. ”
When prime air tried to solve these problems, they soon encountered other problems with low technology content. Insiders described how the parameters of the project changed regularly without any explanation. For example, developers are told to avoid identifying people standing behind windows in UAV lenses, and then are told to do the opposite.
Another source said that their only contact with Amazon headquarters was an American executive. He came every few months to buy pizza for the team and asked them to work harder without any explanation or answering any questions. “The most vivid analogy is that someone on the other side of the earth tells you what to do and then leaves,” the source said. When you are in a team with so little communication between people, I don’t know how you can expect any success. ”
In February 2020, the entire human and animal data analysis team employing dozens of people in the UK was closed and its employees were reassigned to other teams. Three months later, the Department was re established and re staffed three months later. The former employee said: “this must be very abnormal, and it will certainly bring a lot of confusion. At that time, many decisions were made without long-term consideration. ” Another former employee said he felt that the project had always been in “organized chaos”.
At almost the same time, Amazon began to restructure and triggered layoffs, because managers admitted at a meeting for data analysts that for those who currently signed unstable contracts, the promise of permanent employment was no longer on the negotiating table, which hit the morale of the team that had been hit hard.
As a former employee described: “everything began to collapse inward, because they (Amazon) piled up too many things. They put people who knew nothing about the project in charge. Although they overfulfilled the task, they also owed many unfulfilled commitments.” Amazon spokesman said that safety is the top priority of the UAV project. The company has strict procedures to check the work of employees, and any improper behavior will take prompt action.
The former employee mentioned a different standing meeting in early 2020, which was designed to give short-term contract workers the opportunity to ask questions about the lack of permanent jobs. However, the source said that this became a seminar to discuss how contract workers describe their work in their resumes without violating the confidentiality agreement. Former employees said: “this is a good example of how divorced they are from reality. Obviously, Amazon doesn’t want to help you, it’s just covering up its shortcomings. ”
Amazon said its regulatory license in the United States last year would enable it to start new test flights in the United States. However, since 2016, the UK has always had the same license and test flight capability, and no working UAV has been delivered so far. An Amazon spokesman did not clarify the essential difference between the test flights in the United States and those already conducted in the United Kingdom.
Lapoulos, CEO of matternet, a UAV company, said: “the promise of mass market e-commerce UAV delivery service in a few months or even years is far from being realized. Can we cross the next obstacle of large-scale e-commerce distribution? We may need to do so in 2027 or 2028. ”
In the rest of 2020 and so far in 2021, more and more prime air employees in the UK have been either phased out of short-term contracts or eliminated. The employees said they were also told to train their successors in Costa Rica. Amazon has not confirmed whether it will cut more jobs in the UK, nor whether its plan for the global prime air project will involve outsourcing. Moreover, after years of chaos, many insiders doubt whether Amazon will realize its UAV delivery dream（ Tencent Technology (reviser / Jinlu)