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Amazon drone unit hit with layoffs as long-awaited program launches

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Amazon drone unit hit with layoffs as long-awaited program launches

Amazon Prime Air drone

Source: Amazon

In 2013, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos appeared on CBS’ “60 Minutes” to reveal a futuristic plan his company had been secretly pursuing to deliver packages by drone in 30 minutes. 

A pre-recorded demo showed an Amazon-branded “octocopter” carrying a small package off a conveyor belt and into the skies to a customer’s home, landing smoothly in the backyard, dropping off the item and then whizzing away. Bezos predicted a fleet of Amazon drones could take to the skies within five years and said, “it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

A decade later, Amazon is finally starting to launch drone deliveries in two small markets through a program called Prime Air. But just as it’s finally getting off the ground, the drone program is running squarely into a sputtering economy and CEO Andy Jassy’s widespread cost-cutting efforts.

CNBC has learned that, as part of Amazon’s plan to slash 18,000 jobs, its biggest headcount reduction in history, Prime Air is losing a significant number of employees. Sources familiar with the matter who asked not to be named for confidentiality said they learned about the Prime Air cuts on Wednesday, when two senior Amazon executives sent emails to employees notifying them that those impacted by the layoffs would be informed shortly. One person realized what was happening when they could no longer access Slack.

Staffers were let go across multiple sites, including Seattle, where Amazon is headquartered. Amazon’s drone test site in Pendleton, Oregon, was hit particularly hard, with half of the team being let go, one Prime Air employee wrote in a LinkedIn post, which he subsequently deleted.

Amazon declined to say how many Prime Air employees were laid off, and a spokesperson pointed back to Jassy’s blog post from earlier this month announcing the companywide cuts.

Jassy has resorted to trimming Amazon’s headcount, which grew massively during the Covid-19 pandemic, as he looks for ways to curtail expenses across the company. As part of his review, Jassy has zeroed in on some of Amazon’s more unproven bets, such as its Alexa, physical stores and robotics divisions. Now Prime Air is being added to the list of targets.

For Bezos, the staff reductions mark the latest setback in an ambitious project that’s been plagued with challenges.

Amazon spent years testing the drone technology in the English countryside to help Bezos realize his vision of even speedier delivery, dropping off some products without having to solely rely on gas-guzzling vehicles clogging up neighborhood roads.

However, the company scaled back its drone operations in the U.K. According to a 2021 story in Wired, Prime Air teams tasked with labeling drone footage raised concerns of managerial dysfunction.

Then in 2019, Jeff Wilke, who was Amazon’s consumer chief at the time, announced drones would be in operation “within months.” A year later, the Federal Aviation Administration gave the company approval to start trialing drone deliveries. 

But doubts about the viability of the drones emerged after the Prime Air unit suffered high turnover and employees said they were pressured to reach ambitious internal targets, sometimes at the risk of safety, according to Bloomberg. Employee departures accelerated after there were multiple crashes at Prime Air’s test site in Pendleton. One incident in June 2021 sparked a 20-acre fire, Insider reported.

“No one has ever been injured or harmed as a result of these flights, and each test is done in compliance with all applicable regulations,” Av Zammit, an Amazon spokesperson, said in an e-mailed statement.

Liftoff finally appeared imminent in 2023. Prime Air head David Carbon, a former Boeing executive who Amazon brought on in 2020, told reporters at an event in November of last year that by the end of the decade, the company had a goal of delivering 500 million packages by drone annually to millions of customers in major cities like Seattle, Boston and Atlanta. Carbon showed off a drone concept Amazon could begin using in 2024 that’s smaller and quieter than its current model.

Two employees said Carbon, who replaced Prime Air co-founder Gur Kimchi, was hired to turn Prime Air into a real business with a sensible budget.

Now, as Prime Air embarks on its most high-stakes real world experiment to date, the parent company is reckoning with slowing growth and macroeconomic headwinds. Jassy said in his announcement about layoffs this month that company leaders are “prioritizing what matters most to customers and the long-term health of our businesses.”

Sources with knowledge of Prime Air said cuts in the drone delivery business were expected considering the division’s many struggles. Employees in the design, maintenance, systems engineering, flight testing and flight operations units were part of the layoffs, the sources said.

Zammit said Amazon remains committed to its delivery operations in its two initial markets — College Station, Texas, and Lockeford, California.

“We will gradually expand deliveries to more customers in those areas over time,” Zammit said. “Our team is also continuing to work on the development of our next-generation drone system.”

Drones in the neighborhood

In College Station, a city about 100 miles northwest of Houston that’s home to Texas A&M University, an Amazon drone delivery center sits just off a state highway, tucked behind a row of car dealerships. At the warehouse on site, all goods must weight five pounds or less.

Four launch and landing pads occupy the grounds, where unmanned aircrafts will be dispatched to take goods to residents in a handful of suburban neighborhoods located within a few miles of the facility.

Lockeford is a town of 3,500 people, south of Sacramento. An Amazon executive said in July that after looking at locations across the country, Amazon chose these two markets because of their demographics and topography.

Nina Rinchich is one of the residents in the College Station area who signed up to try Prime Air. About a month ago, an Amazon employee visited her home in Edelweiss Gartens, a subdivision a few miles south of Amazon’s drone facility.

Prime Air test participants were given a QR-code like tile that instructs the drone where to land.

Tyler Tesch

Rinchich said she’s always embraced new technologies and loves the idea of added convenience. She has a smart TV, an Echo speaker and smart light bulbs in her home. 

“Anything that makes my life easier is a good thing,” Rinchich said. 

Participation in the service requires a Prime membership. Residents also have to live within roughly four miles of the Amazon facility, and their yard has to meet certain specifications, such as being clear of power lines or trees that might obstruct the drone’s flight path. To entice potential participants, Amazon is offering them up to $100 worth of gift cards. 

Once a person signs up, an Amazon employee comes out to measure their backyard. If it meets Amazon’s requirements, the customer is given a tile with a unique QR-like code that helps the drone recognize where to land. The yard should be clear when the drone approaches.

While Rinchich said she signed up “without hesitation,” not everyone in the area shares her enthusiasm.

Some residents of College Station and surrounding towns attended a “meet and greet” session in July, where Amazon displayed a Prime Air drone up close and let people register for the service.

Patrick Williams, a software engineering consultant, took his 12-year-old daughter, Monica. They live in a rural area called Foxfire, less than two miles by car from the Amazon facility. Monica Williams told CNBC that the size of the drone took her by surprise. Each one is about 6.5 feet wide and almost 4 feet tall, weighing 87 pounds. That’s with nothing on board.

Monica Williams, a College Station resident, poses with a Prime Air drone at a community event in July.

Patrick Williams

“It was maybe twice the size of me, or three times. It was huge,” Monica said. “That just makes me nervous to have something that big flying above me all of the time.” 

Debates over safety, privacy

The same month as the meet and greet, College Station’s city council held a meeting with Prime Air employees in attendance.

Concerns about safety, privacy and noise were common themes among residents who spoke at the meeting. One person suggested that neighborhood homeowners’ associations consider banning drone deliveries in their communities altogether.

City Councilman Dennis Maloney asked Sean Cassidy, Prime Air’s director of safety, flight operations and regulatory affairs, how loud the drones would be.

“If I’m a neighbor and I’m nine feet away, is it going to sound like a backfire of a car?” Maloney asked.

“We kind of balk at making direct comparisons to gas powered things,” Cassidy, a former Alaska Airlines pilot, replied. “It’s a whirring noise you’d associate with an electrically powered device that happens to have a propeller attached to it. And it’s for a very short period of time.” 

Prime Air drones are not expected to exceed noise levels of 58 decibels at any property line, according to an FAA environmental assessment issued in December. That’s below the threshold outlined in College Station’s daytime noise ordinance, which says noise at the property line must not exceed 63 decibels, or about as loud as an outdoor air conditioning unit, one official said at the meeting. 

Amazon tried to ease residents’ fears that there will be constant drone traffic overhead. The company expects to conduct up to 25 flights per day over the area eligible for delivery, which is divided into four different zones. 

“It’s a very modest, incremental start and basically that’s the whole purpose of this,” Cassidy said. “To learn through the operational lessons, through the community feedback, through getting direct feedback from our customers on how we can improve the operation.” 

Regarding crashes, Cassidy said those incidents are part of the testing process. He said Amazon has high safety standards for the public trials in College Station and Lockeford.

“We sequester that to the test range with our experimental aircraft, and the reason we do that is we can wring all this stuff out before we put it in front of our customers,” he said. “Our obligation is to make sure that the first and the thousandth delivery are all safe.” 

College Station residents also expressed concern about the prospect of drones harming the deer, foxes and birds that are native to the area. An FAA review of proposed Prime Air operations in College Station found they were unlikely to disturb wildlife. Amazon also assured the FAA it would monitor the flight area for birds like Bald Eagles and woodpeckers and take avoidance measures if determined to be necessary.

Tyler Tesch, a Google software engineer, registered for Prime Air shortly after moving to College Station. He said he received an email from Amazon earlier this month that required him to agree to Prime Air’s terms and conditions, including staying at least 100 feet clear of the drone or inside the home during a delivery and agreeing not to touch the drone or throw anything at it.

“We will be launching the service in phases to members of your community in the coming months,” the email stated. “As we continue to expand, we will update you when drone delivery is available for your household.”

WATCH: Tech layoffs mount

Tech layoffs mount as Amazon announces it's cutting another 18,000 workers

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The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Set Sounds Absolutely Delightful, Thanks To Rachel Brosnahan’s Adorable Pig Story

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Rachel Brosnahan playing Midge in the Season 4 trailer for Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Over the course of four seasons, and soon a fifth installment, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has managed to one-up themselves and make the scale bigger, the set pieces more extravagant and the monologues snappier. While all of this has been amazing for us viewers, one-upping yourself every time must be quite stressful, and it has been according to Rachel Brosnahan. However, she also came up with an adorable way to de-stress and help the cast and crew by hiring therapy pigs. This also goes to show just how delightful the set of this Prime Video show seems, even during stressful moments. 

Filming Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which went on to win many Emmys in 2019, the cast and crew had taken on a much bigger challenge than they did in Season 1. By traveling around the world, and upping the ante overall the stress levels were high. However, Rachel Brosnahan revealed that she had a “delightful” stress relief activity planned involving therapy pigs, truly showing how wonderful this set seems. The actress behind Midge Maisel started her story about therapy pigs by setting the scene on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, saying:  

So this is actually from our second season, we shot ten episodes during our second season, that’s the only time we ever did that, we never tried it again. We started the season in Paris, we traveled to the Catskills, we were on the move a lot. It was a really, really tough season. The crew was really tired. And toward the end of the season, someone had told me about this service in New York, where you can order therapy pigs to come to your workplace and make you feel better. And so, I brought therapy pigs to set and it was kind of incredible.



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Amazon’s renewable energy portfolio swells to over 20 GW

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Amazon's renewable energy portfolio swells to over 20 GW

Amazon increased its renewable energy capacity by 8.3 GW in 2022, bringing its total portfolio to over 20 GW, enough to power millions of US homes.

Growing to become one of the largest global companies by market cap comes with great responsibility. The bigger the operations, the more damaging they can be to the environment with more energy use, carbon emissions, etc.

After the pandemic shuttered most people inside their homes, online shopping became a go-to for many.

As a result, e-commerce giant Amazon saw its business surge, with an over 200% rise in profits as shopping habits turned digital. To offset the company’s explosive growth, it has been investing in renewable energy projects and other sustainable activities to reduce its environmental impact.

Since 2014 Amazon has been on a mission to decarbonize its business globally by adding renewable energy capacity and electric vehicles to its fleet while striving to make packaging more efficient.

The e-commerce giant committed to rolling out over 100,000 EDVs from Rivian by 2030 as part of its Climate Pledge. According to Amazon’s latest update, over 1,000 Rivian EDVs debuted this past holiday season to make zero-emission deliveries.

Amazon-renewable-energy
Amazon Rivian EDV (Source: Amazon)

Amazon’s renewable energy portfolio expanded in 2022

Meanwhile, the company added significant clean energy capacity last year to help it reach its goal of powering operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025, five years ahead of its goal.

Amazon announced today it set a new record for the most renewable energy purchased in 2022, adding an additional 8.3 GW through 133 new projects in 11 countries.

Altogether, Amazon now has over 20 GW, enough to power 5.3 million US homes. The clean energy capacity is spread throughout 401 projects (164 wind farms and 237 rooftop solar projects) in 22 different countries. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Amazon remains the most prominent corporate buyer of renewable energy, maintaining the position since 2020.

Once complete and operational, Amazon expects to generate 56,881 GWh of clean energy annually.

Head of sustainability research at BloombergNEF, Kyle Harris, says Amazon’s clean energy portfolio is now among the leading utilities globally, adding:

The fact that it announced a new annual record of clean energy in a year mired by a global energy crisis, supply chain bottlenecks, and high interest rates speaks to its forward planning and expertise in navigating power markets and executing long-term contracts.

Despite economic uncertainty, Amazon stood by its commitment last year, doubling down on its renewable energy efforts.

Electrek’s Take

You have to give credit where credit is due. Amazon is doing its part by deploying hundreds of clean energy projects across the globe.

Amazon says renewable energy reached 85% of its business in 2021. By doubling down this past year, the e-commerce giant is now on track to hit its goal of powering business operations with 100% renewable five years ahead of schedule.

However, the company still has a lot of work to do to lessen its environmental impact. According to research from Statista, packaging accounts for the most significant share of greenhouse gas emissions in the e-commerce industry, accounting for 45% of total emissions.

Amazon has also made strides in reducing emissions by reducing per-shipment packaging weight by 38% (eliminating over 1.5 million tons of packaging), optimizing materials, and offering vendors incentives to use fully recyclable materials.

The e-commerce giant is making significant progress in its renewable energy goals, yet there’s still a long way to go in reducing packaging waste and energy usage overall.

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Buy Microsoft 365 Family today and get a $50 Amazon gift card

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If you purchase an independently reviewed product or service through a link on our website, we may receive an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Microsoft 365 is a must-have for just about every PC and Mac user. And on Tuesday only, Amazon is offering a free $50 Amazon gift card when you purchase a one-year subscription to Microsoft 365 Family. This is by far one of the best Amazon gift card deals you can get right now.

Formerly called Office 365, Microsoft 365 Family gives up to six people access to the latest versions of Excel, Word, PowerPoint, Outlook, and more. Microsoft’s various Office apps are thought of by most people as vastly superior to similar software from other brands. You need these apps anyway, so taking advantage of this one-day Microsoft 365 Family deal obviously makes sense.

Microsoft 365 Family 12-month Subscription (PC/Mac Download) + $50 Amazon Gift Card Microsoft 365 Family 12-month Subscription (PC/Mac Download) + $50 Amazon Gift Card $149.99 $99.99 (save $50) Save up to 33% Available on Amazon

For those unaware, Microsoft 365 includes all of the most important Microsoft Office applications and more. You get Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. Your subscription also includes Microsoft OneDrive, Editor, and Family Safety, which is a suite of security solutions.

Unlike years past, this is a subscription service instead of a one-time purchase. You pay $99.99 annually for Microsoft 365 Family, and you’ll always have the latest versions of all of these apps on your Windows PCs and Mac computers.

Plus, you get access to the online versions of Microsoft Office apps. That means you can access them from any browser no matter where you are.

Microsoft 365 Family
Microsoft 365 Family is on sale for one day only. Image source: Maren Estrada for BGR

All that for $99.99 each year is already a terrific value. On Tuesday, however, Amazon is running a one-day sale that gives you a great bonus.

In addition to everything we listed above, Amazon’s deal includes a $50 Amazon gift card at no extra charge. Since you’re going to subscribe to Microsoft 365 anyway, why not renew now and get a $50 bonus for free?

There are plenty of other Amazon gift card deals you can find in our guide, but this one is a must-have.

Also, if you’re wondering, here are the main differences when comparing Microsoft 365 Family with Microsoft 365 Personal:

Microsoft 365 Family

  • For one to six people
  • Use up to five devices simultaneously
  • Works on PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, and Android phones and tablets
  • Up to 6 TB of cloud storage (1 TB per person)
  • Additional features in the Family Safety mobile app

Microsoft 365 Personal

  • For one person
  • Use up to five devices simultaneously
  • Works on PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, and Android phones and tablets
  • 1 TB of cloud storage

Microsoft 365 Family 12-month Subscription (PC/Mac Download) + $50 Amazon Gift Card Microsoft 365 Family 12-month Subscription (PC/Mac Download) + $50 Amazon Gift Card $149.99 $99.99 (save $50) Save up to 33% Available on Amazon



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