Amazon’s delivery drones are being put through their paces at a secret location in the heart of the English countryside.
Daniel Buchmueller, the cofounder of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone business, told journalists at a press event last month that Amazon’s largest outdoor drone test site was somewhere in the UK. However, the company’s PR team has repeatedly refused to give away any more information than that.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which regulates drone flying in the UK, has also refused to reveal where it has given Amazon permission to test its drones.
Several reports suggested the site was near Amazon’s R&D centre in Cambridge, with the BBC reporting that the drones were being tested south east of the university city at a historic site known as Fleam Dyke and The Roman Road. But photos of the site have been scarce — until now.
Business Insider travelled to Cambridge to try and locate the drone test site. Here’s how we got on:
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos revealed plans for Amazon Prime Air in an interview on '60 Minutes' in December 2013. The conceptual drone-based delivery system is currently in development and a number of drone designs have been released.
Amazon wants to use the drones to deliver packages to people's homes and offices in under 30 minutes. It claims the drones will be greener, cheaper, and safer than the vans that are currently used to deliver Amazon packages.
Amazon Prime Air cofounder Daniel Buchmueller said in July that the battery-powered vehicles can rise vertically like a helicopter up to 400 feet before flying up to 15 miles at speeds of 50mph. He said the company is creating 25kg drones that are highly automated and able to carry packages up to 2kg in weight, adding that there are more than a dozen prototypes already made.
Amazon is using an R&D centre in the university city of Cambridge to help with its drone development.
Cambridge is one of the UK's biggest technology hubs and a key Amazon R&D centre. A lot of the tech in Alexa, Amazon's AI-powered virtual assistant, was built in Cambridge.
As soon as I arrived in Cambridge, I went to see William Tunstall-Pedoe. The Cambridge computer science graduate founded a voice recognition company called Evi Technologies, which Amazon bought in 2013 for a reported $26 million (£19.7 million). Evi's AI software is now at the core of Alexa. Tunstall-Pedoe, pictured here in front of a painting designed by an AI, said he didn't know where Amazon's drones were being tested. His comments were made as part of a longer interview.
After visiting Tunstall-Pedoe, I drove out towards the Fleam Dyke and The Roman Road, which is where the BBC said Amazon was flying the drones.
Two local sources who wished to remain anonymous told me that the drones were being tested in a field near a place called Worsted Lodge, which is eight miles south east of Cambridge and just off the A11. One of the sources kindly pointed the exact field out on a map for me and told me how to get there.
This is Worsted Lodge, which is where I parked my car. The final 20-30 minutes to the drone site had to be done on foot.
I spotted this sign near the site. Julia Napier, secretary of Friends of the Roman Road and Fleam Dyke, told me before the trip that she'd prefer it if Amazon tested the drones in a desert in the US. She's concerned the noise from the drones will disturb birds in the area, as well as walkers.
This sign shows some of the flora and fauna in the area. Owls and other birds of prey have been spotted around the site where Amazon is testing the drones.
This is field where the test site is actually located. Although the test site appears to be a beige colour on this satellite image, it's actually covered in green crops at the moment that are approximately one metre high.
The tall trees in the right of this photo blocked the view of the test site so I walked through them and immediately spotted what I was looking for.
The test site includes a single container at one end of a field and a slightly larger complex at the other end. The bases are roughly 400 metres apart. The two bases are likely used to launch and house the drones.
Both bases had what appeared to be astro turf landing spots outside the front of them. There were also a number of flags stuck into the field although it's unclear how these relate to the drone tests.
Here is a closer view of the smaller base. A man (believed to be a security guard) emerged from this container and asked me what I was doing. He denied that the site was used for drone tests, saying instead that it was simply a 'farm'. When I pointed out that there were large launchpads in this field that was used for farming, he shrugged.
After the awkward encounter with the security guard, I tried approaching the site via the farm that it sits on. The farm has a long drive that Amazon Prime Air employees must go down in order to reach the field where they test the drones.
Back in Cambridge, I paid a visit to Amazon's R&D facility at Castle Park. Amazon is based out of Poseidon House, which is where Evi Technologies (acquired by Amazon) was based before it was acquired by Amazon.
Amazon's research facility is behind the walls of this inconspicuous building. The teams here work on Amazon Prime Air and Amazon's AI assistant (Alexa), among other projects.
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