A reporter and photographer set out to find the top-secret site in Britain where e-commerce giant Amazon began secretly testing unmanned aircraft this summer.
WORSTED LODGE, England — After hours of searching, I pulled onto a dirt track here in the rolling hills of Cambridgeshire and spotted a small dot whirring across the blue sky, gently swaying in the breeze as it steadily flew about 200 feet above the ground.
Jackpot: It was an Amazon drone.
Barely visible to the naked eye, the unmarked aircraft, about the size of a large model plane, floated across a field about 1,000 yards in the distance, the lights on its four-pronged sensors flashing brightly against the afternoon sun.
E-commerce giant Amazon.com began secretly testing unmanned aircraft this summer at an undisclosed location in Britain (its largest outdoor test site, according to an Amazon executive). I set out to find the top-secret site, wanting to see how we all may one day receive online deliveries.
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In retrospect, signs of Amazon’s secret tests were hidden in plain sight.
There was the warning to pilots that unmanned aircraft would be flying in the area, about an hour north of London, until early October; the uncharacteristically fast cellphone reception in such a remote area — a must when processing drone data; and the growing list of jobs and openings at Amazon’s research and development site in Cambridge related to Prime Air, the company’s ambitious plan to use drones for everyday deliveries.
Amazon is not alone, however, as other companies conduct drone trials around the world.
In Britain, Amazon is working with local authorities to test several aspects of drone technology like piloting the machines beyond the line of sight of operators, a practice still outlawed in the United States.
Regulators here first authorized the commercial use of drones in 2010 — years before the Federal Aviation Administration eased its restrictions on remotely piloted aircraft in June. Amazon settled on Britain after the United States initially denied approval for such tests.
At the site in the Cambridge countryside, and a similar facility in Canada, Amazon is likely to be working on the drone’s sensors and other improvements needed for daily use. A company spokeswoman declined to comment on the English test site.
With competitors aplenty, it is not surprising that Amazon wants to hide efforts from prying eyes. In Fulbourn, the nearest village to the test site, where thatch-roofed houses and a centuries-old church stand guard over the quiet main street, few people even knew that the U.S. technology giant had moved in down the road.
“Drones? Here?” said Linda McCarthy, who was taking her two Labrador retrievers for their morning walk as I trudged by on a public footpath with a map of the area and a pair of decades-old binoculars. “I’ve never heard anything about that.”
Some people in this rural area have had angry reactions. To Julia Napier, a co-founder of Friends of the Roman Road and Fleam Dyke, a local association that maintains public footpaths around the site, Amazon’s arrival is a potential threat to wildlife and the wider countryside, something the company has denied.
Over coffee and surrounded by wildlife maps of the area, Napier, 78, complained that Amazon had not consulted many local residents about its tests. She questioned what right the company had to fly across the British countryside, possibly without the permission of landowners, even though such authorization may not be required.
Napier refuses to use Amazon’s services, preferring to visit her local bookshop or smaller online British rivals.
Her stance against the e-commerce giant has not gone unnoticed. A company employee called last week, Napier said, trying to convince her that the local drone trials were safe and did not pose a risk to wildlife.
She remains skeptical. “They are testing those drones here because they can’t do it in America,” she said. “Whatever the Americans don’t want, I don’t want it, either.”
Rumors about mysterious aircraft flying low across the countryside drew me to the area. Yet pulling up in a nearby parking lot on an unseasonably warm September morning, I felt as if I was in the wrong place.
Nothing looked out of the ordinary. Commuters arrived at a rural office park, and dog walkers basked in the late-summer sun. And as I walked miles along a Roman road built roughly 2,000 years ago — now a grassy public footpath — I was no closer to finding the elusive machines.
After exhausting almost all the public footpaths, I had a sinking suspicion I was on a wild-goose chase. Only one route remained.
Less than 300 yards down the grassy track on the edge of a farm, a security guard with a walkie-talkie popped up from behind a hedgerow and pointed to a sign declaring: “Private property. No trespassing.”
When he repeatedly told me that this was indeed private property and that he had called the farmer to evict me, I knew I was onto something. As I circled the property with Andrew Testa, a photographer for The New York Times, my suspicions only grew.
At the entrance to the farm — despite Amazon’s presence, farm work was still under way — a security guard in a fluorescent vest was checking the identifications of people arriving at the site. In the distance, hay bales were piled at least 20 feet high (presumably to test the drones’ ability to navigate between buildings). A large, metallic blue platform in a far-off field provided a panoramic view of the surrounding farmland.
Then we spotted it.
Actually spying the drone — best seen through my colleague’s long camera lens — was an anticlimax. Instead of performing a series of aerial acrobatics, the device merely bobbed along for about 20 minutes, slowly working its way from one side of the field to the other with barely a waver or shudder.
The stakes for Amazon’s drone test are unquestionably high. The next day, a police officer questioned my colleague as he again photographed the area, although the officer denied that Amazon had tipped him off.
For places like Worsted Lodge — a sparsely populated area where farm animals easily outnumber residents — drones could fill an underserved niche of people with limited access to stores. But in many urban areas, the arrival of drone delivery could quickly become a logistical nightmare.
“How will deliveries do the last 100 yards?” said Jay Bregman, the founder of Verifly, a drone insurance startup, when I called him for advice about the practicalities of such plans. “In places like New York, that’s going to be really difficult.”