Amazon Pharmacy's drone delivery service lifts off with initial service in College Station, Texas

SEATTLE—Amazon Pharmacy is launching drone delivery for prescription medication orders with the service initially taking flight in College Station, Texas, the company announced Wednesday.

The pharmacy deliveries will be dropped, quite literally, outside a consumer's front door within 60 minutes at no additional cost for eligible Amazon Pharmacy customers, the company said.

Amazon Pharmacy is teaming up with the online retailer's drone service, Prime Air, which kicked off commercial deliveries in the same Texas city in December.

Delivery of medications via drone will be offered in College Station initially and will expand to additional cities in the coming years, an Amazon Pharmacy spokesperson said. The announcement was made this week as part of Amazon's Delivering the Future event in Seattle focused on its latest innovations.

Eligible customers in College Station will have the option to select drone delivery during the Amazon Pharmacy checkout process. If an item is drone-eligible, customers will see a “delivery by drone” option that promises delivery within 60 minutes.

College Station residents selecting drone delivery will have access to more than 500 medications that treat common conditions including flu, asthma and pneumonia, Amazon Pharmacy executives said.

Customers cannot receive a mix of other products sold through Amazon’s online store, like toothpaste or diapers, with their Amazon Pharmacy medication delivery, the company said, which is the same policy for drone delivery as standard delivery. Amazon Pharmacy facilities are separately licensed and maintained and do not stock nonclinical items.

Combined with Amazon's other healthcare offerings, including Amazon Clinic and One Medical, drone delivery service speeds up "triage to treatment" for patients, Vin Gupta, M.D., chief medical officer of Amazon Pharmacy, said in an interview.

“We’re taught from the first days of medical school that there is a golden window that matters in clinical medicine. That’s the time between when a patient feels unwell and when they’re able to get treatment," he said.

"It's hard at scale to provide that type of service, that type of touch point, triage to treatment," Gupta noted. "When you zoom out and look at what we’re building across our connected service, Amazon Clinic and One Medical, and then carrying that to one-hour delivery of medications via drone, you begin to see the parameters of a fundamentally different transformative care experience, especially for acute conditions."

Amazon is building out its pharmacy services as it scales up its other healthcare businesses. In February, the company finalized its big-ticket acquisition of One Medical, a hybrid virtual and in-person primary care service. It also rolled out Amazon Clinic, a virtual health service targeting 35 common conditions, including a newly launched cold and flu condition service.

Through those offerings, customers can get a same-day appointment to address symptoms of an acute condition like a cold, flu or bacterial pneumonia. "That customer can then get treatment, if appropriate, through drone delivery, hyper-fast and under an hour, and that is something that we struggle with in the broader healthcare ecosystem, and we struggled with throughout the pandemic, despite our best intentions. This is showing the art of the possible as we continue to mature our business lines," Gupta said.

Mail-order prescription medication delivery typically takes five to 10 business days, noted John Love, vice president of Amazon Pharmacy.

“We’re making the process of getting the acute and chronic medications customers need easier, faster and more affordable. Rapid delivery changes the prescription delivery paradigm from days to minutes, and represents a dramatic improvement over what patients are used to," Love said.

Amazon is one of five drone-delivery companies granted a Federal Aviation Administration air carrier certificate required to operate drones with advanced capabilities. The other drone operators to be granted Part 135 air carrier certification are Wing and UPS in 2019, Zipline in 2022 and Flytrex’s longtime partner Causey Aviation Unmanned in 2023. Amazon received its certification in 2020.

To date, the online retailer's drone delivery efforts have lagged behind other companies' drone programs such as Alphabet's Wing and Walmart partner Zipline.

In April 2022, drugstore giant Walgreens launched an on-demand drone delivery service with Alphabet's Wing in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It marked the first commercial drone delivery service in a major U.S. metropolitan area, according to the companies. Wing has made 330,000 deliveries to date, executives told CNBC, though the company primarily delivers in Australia.

Walmart partners with Zipline along with other drone operators DroneUp and Flytrex and completed more than 6,000 drone deliveries in 2022, the company announced earlier this year. Walmart now has 36 stores with drone delivery hubs in seven U.S. states.

Amazon’s drones have safely delivered "hundreds" of household items in College Station since December 2022, the company said. Amazon's commercial drone delivery program also operates in Lockeford, California.

CNBC reported that Amazon's Prime Air drone program was hamstrung by regulatory restrictions that limit where deliveries can be made as well as significant layoffs in the Prime Air division earlier this year.

Several health systems also are testing out drone delivery programs. Michigan Medicine, Intermountain Health and MultiCare Health System are working with Zipline to bring medications and medical devices to patient homes. Magellan Health also inked a partnership with Zipline last year to deliver prescription medications via drones.

For the Amazon Pharmacy drone delivery service, the company is using its latest Prime Air drone design, the MK27-2 drone, which flies at an altitude of 40 meters to 120 meters—an airspace with minimal obstacles.

The drone’s built-in sense-and-avoid technology uses sensors and cameras to navigate around people, pets and power lines, according to the company. Cameras on the drone feed into a neural network trained to identify objects. On arrival at the customer’s home, the drone slowly and safely lowers itself above a delivery marker. Computer vision will detect any structures or objects protruding from the ground—including people and animals—and check whether they are interfering with the descent path. When the delivery zone is clear, the drone releases the package, rises back up to altitude and returns to the delivery center. Customers pick up packages without any interaction with the drone.

Amazon drones have a unique hexagonal design that provides six degrees for freedom and stability, and the propellers have been designed to minimize sound waves, Amazon executives said.

Medications were the first thing Amazon customers said they also wanted to be delivered quickly via drone, noted Calsee Hendrickson, director of product and program management at Prime Air. "Speed and convenience top the wish list for health purchases," Hendrickson said.

Individuals do not have to be Prime members to use the drone delivery service. But customers will need to onboard with Prime Air and participate in a yard survey, the company said.