What if … Worcester: Dateline 2044 — Delivery drone crash tests school’s new safety dome

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This article was originally published in the Sept. 4, 2016 edition of the Sun.

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Editor’s note: This is the third installment of our newest series What if … Worcester, what we hope to be a fascinating, imaginative and often reality-based window into the coming decades and centuries in and around the City of Seven Hills.

TUESDAY, Sept. 6, 2044 — An Amazon-operated delivery drone botched an emergency landing yesterday, almost hitting the Perkins Farm Primary School Playground. The drone skidded off the school’s recently installed safety dome and crashed to the sidewalk below. The drone was about the size of a trash barrel and weighed 23 kilograms (50 pounds). No one was injured.

The incident occurred about 2:15 p.m. as students were outside the former Roosevelt Elementary, but on the other side of the building, awaiting pickup.

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Parents within the dome report hearing a series of muffled thumps from above but not seeing anything. Outside, witnesses heard the thumps, and saw a delivery drone attempting to land on the curved surface. “It wobbled for a minute, as if it wasn’t sure if it was going to land or launch again, but by then gravity took over. It slid right down the dome and smashed onto the sidewalk,” said John Ayim, who was walking to pick up his daughter.

Police taped off the area on Grafton Street around the broken machine. About 30 minutes later, a white unmarked van pulled up. Three men in unlabeled khaki jumpsuits took photos, meticulously collected every last bit of debris, and placed them into containers. Then the van drove in the direction of the General Electric Turnpike on-ramp.


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Later that evening, the Worcester Fire Department arrived to inspect for damage to the 61-meter-high (200 feet) dome. Six firefighters strapped into recently donated Martin Enterprises fan-powered jetpacks, which were developed in the firm’s new South Worcester Industrial Park headquarters. Martin emerged as a new entity after the dissolution of Lockheed Martin.

The firefighters from Aerial 2 with support from Engine 7, based at Grafton Street’s Dio Memorial Station, formerly Southeast Station, buzzed inside and outside the dome. After an hour, their search found “not even a scuff,” according to Worcester Public Schools Facilities Director Oscar Mendez.

The transparent protective domes, made of aluminum oxynitride, were purchased as part of a 10-year, $2.1 billion project funded mostly by Homeland Security and Health and Human Services grants. The high-tech, ultraviolet-blocking, climate-controlled security domes were to cover all 37 elementary schools in the city; the final dome, over Obama Primary Charter, was installed last month.

“Remember, these domes were built to withstand bullets aimed at schools,” said Mr. Mendez. “It’ll take something a lot heavier and faster to break this.”

One state agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing, told the Sun, “Our preliminary findings lead us to believe the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle lost signal, in which case it would begin its Automatic Emergency Landing Sequence. The AELS dictates a drone land in the closest open area, at least 20 meters by 20 meters, without people. It’s possible the drone detected the open field behind the school, registered it vacant, attempted a landing, but couldn’t take into account the curved, glasslike barrier.

“It tried again and again to descend, was stymied by the surface and eventually lost bearings and tumbled down outside of the dome. We’ll be contacting Amazon first thing in the morning to determine why the UAV lost signal in the first place.”

Last evening Amazon released a statement: “Amazon Prime Air flies thousands of drone deliveries every day to bring products to our customers in the safest, most convenient method possible. Occasionally, we do have a malfunction. We greatly regret any inconvenience to the City of Worcester and will be working diligently with all parties to investigate and resolve.”

According to a statement found on the Amazon website, the online retailer flew 1,893,524 flights in New England in 2043. Of those, there were 117 “major” failures, in which a drone lost signal and had to initiate automatic landing procedures. One hundred fifteen of those landed safely, with two crash landings, one in northern Vermont and one on the Maine-Massachusetts border. No one was injured in either of those incidents.

The city of Worcester will be issuing a standard $7,500 fine to Amazon for “losing control of an Unmanned Airborne Vehicle.”

“Just thank god no one was hurt,” said Esteban Martinez, who was waiting outside for his child to be released. “This could’ve been a lot worse.” He said he orders products online “all the time” and they’re delivered by drone two to three times per week.

“I don’t know why they have to fly those things 24 hours a day,” said a neighbor, Jennifer Smith, whose home looks across Sunderland Road to Perkins Farm school. “When I was growing up we had real people delivering packages. Geesh! I don’t remember a mail truck ever trying to fall into a schoolyard.”

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