An 82-year-old woman who lives with her dog, horse, two ponies and a small herd of goats just across the street from the drone facility, which is still under construction, said no one had mentioned Amazon’s plans to her. Ditto for two brothers who were busy converting the neighboring winery they recently bought into a marijuana farm.
A man at a local archery shop jokingly commented, “Shooting practice!” when he found out.
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When Amazon announced last week that it would be using drones to deliver packages in the United States for the first time, many Lockeford residents were surprised by the news. Amazon often begins its projects in secret, using code names and secretly negotiating tax subsidies, whether it’s building data centers, corporate headquarters, or new fulfillment centers. But the big revelation sometimes comes as a shock to locals, sparking battles between the tech giant and the communities it wants to bring to justice.
In recent years, a Denver suburb, an island community on the Canadian border from New York, and a small town in Massachusetts have joined forces to halt development by Amazon after the news broke. In 2018, after a top-secret process to select New York City as one of its second headquarters, the plan was scrapped due to a major setback. (Amazon is building its so-called HQ2 in Arlington, VA)
The team that chose Lockeford liked it for its weather, rural topography, freeway access and existing customer base, a former Amazon employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, told the company Washington Post. But the team also thought it was a good choice because there wouldn’t be too much bureaucracy.
It “felt like a cowboy and do what you want,” the person said.
The company said it started reaching out to locals within a four-mile radius of the site last week to see who might be interested in trying out the program. Those who sign up can choose from a selection of items under £5, which are stocked at a small warehouse nearby. The drones, which are 2.50 meters wide and almost 1.20 meters high, are supposed to drop the packages from a height of around 1.20 meters onto a predetermined spot.
There were some caveats: San Joaquin County, where Lockeford is located, is still processing its permits and the company has yet to be de-registered from the Federal Aviation Administration.
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But not all residents are ready to lay out the welcome mat.
“They’re an invasion of our privacy,” said Tim Blighton, a cement contractor who lives near Lockeford, who said he once threatened to shoot down a neighbor’s drone that was flying over his house.
He worries that Amazon cameras could see into his garden. But Blighton added that he’s not interested in any kind of delivery from Amazon, which he says is “going to destroy our corner shops.”
“I’m not an Amazon guy,” Blighton said. “I think they will ruin everything for us.”
Amazon is cooperating with local authorities in Lockeford, company spokesman Av Zammit said, and is working to obtain permits. The company’s drone “does not take pictures from below as it flies to and from its delivery location,” and does not use that data for any other purpose. The drone project will also create new jobs.
One day it will be as normal to see Prime Air drones as Prime delivery trucks, he said. “But,” he added, “if someone shot down a drone, they would be breaking the law.”
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, caused a stir when he announced drone delivery to 60 Minutes in 2013. But the company is struggling to deliver on its promise, having only completed one drone delivery in Cambridge, England, in 2016 before the team was disbanded. In March 2020, Bloomberg reported, Amazon hired Boeing’s David Carbon to help move the project forward, and some employees clashed with his approach. Former flight assistant Cheddi Skeete has spoken publicly about his safety concerns over Prime Air, which has experienced multiple drone crashes during test flights, including one in Oregon that started a 25-acre fire.
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Amazon has attempted to sidestep regulation and avoid FAA post-accident inspections, Business Insider reported last month. When asked if the clashes between the agency and the company around its Oregon test site could delay the drone launch, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the agency “does not comment on any pending certification projects or discussions with companies.”
Amazon’s Zammit said the company’s drones are being tested at a “closed, private facility” and “no one has ever been harmed or injured as a result of those flights.” The Lockeford deliveries will not be experimental, he added, and will be offered under an FAA aviation certificate to ensure the program meets the agency’s “high safety barrier.” The company also works closely with local authorities.
The former Amazon employee who is familiar with Prime Air said the team is under pressure to make some deliveries this year or the future of the project could be in jeopardy. Amazon denies This.
Some Lockeford residents said it might make sense for them. “I have plenty of space, why not?” said Tracy Clarke, a local Amazon shopper who said she orders almost everything on the site.
Pam Coleman, who lives on nearly 30 acres of land not far from Lockeford, said the nearest town had few amenities. “Maybe it’s better in places like that,” she said.
Others were mixed. Greg Baroni is an Amazon customer who lives close enough to sign up for drone delivery. But he said Amazon delivers packages to his home fast enough anyway.
“I don’t think drones are needed,” he told the Post. “They take jobs away from people who are looking.”
Like Blighton, he was uncomfortable with the idea of drones. “I don’t want drones flying around my house – we live in the country,” he said.
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The property that will be home to Prime Air, which Amazon is leasing from a local concrete manufacturer, has already been designated for distribution, according to Stephanie Yoder, a county spokeswoman. The county said the company is in the process of obtaining the appropriate building and business permits, adding that it is also undergoing an environmental review by the FAA.
Amazon has a team working with local governments to ensure the community is open to its presence, the former employee said. It can also be challenging to persuade customers to participate in a program that restricts their ability to order and requires coordination with Amazon.
“It’s a pain,” added the clerk. Amazon spokesman Zammit said customers could order packages to be delivered by drones in a normal way.
Amazon has also announced plans to bring drone delivery to College Station, Texas, where the city council is scheduled to vote on the plan on July 14. But at a zoning commission meeting last week, members of the public raised concerns about safety and noise, including resident Amina Alikhan, who said if Lockeford was open to trying drone delivery first, College Station should “make it the proving ground.”
But in Lockeford, many residents were surprised to hear their rural farming town had been selected for the Amazon program.
“I have a large amount of cattle and horses, and a drone would easily startle the animals,” said Naydeene Koster. “Horses will run right through barbed wire or any kind of fence if they think they are in danger. I’ve seen horses kill themselves over a flying balloon, I would hate to see the damage a flying drone would do if it got into their area.”
“Lockeford is an old-school farm town made up mostly of old ranches,” she continued. “The idea of this newer technology invading your privacy while potentially scaring your animals is pretty scary for many out here.”
Amazon’s Zammit said the company has been working to reduce noise and will “work hard to minimize potential disruption.”
Lockeford resident Joy Huffman said her daughters order so much from Amazon that she gets a package almost every day. Still, she’s not sure if she would volunteer for the program. “I wonder how it’s going to work,” she said. “Hopefully the drone puts it in the right garden.”
“I don’t like taking people’s jobs,” said Jennifer Hoy, who moved to Lockeford from nearby Lodi about a year ago. “But I want to look at it — I want to see what it looks like.”
But there are also those for whom Amazon, whether human or drone, is a non-starter.
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“My stepson worked for them, they don’t treat their employees right,” said Jay Jiminez, who stopped in Lockeford on Wednesday afternoon to get sausage. “If I order something and see that it says Amazon, I ignore it.”
A man who waters his garden just down the street from Amazon’s soon-to-be drone launch pad was also concerned about Amazon’s bad reputation as an employer.
The man, who declined to give his name, said his wife regularly orders from Amazon. When asked if he would sign up for the drone experiment, he shook his head.
“They already have too much money and too much power,” he added.