Ex-Amazon drone manager says he was fired for raising safety concerns
Published in Science & Technology News
When Cheddi Skeete joined Amazon's delivery drone project, it didn't take long before he noticed some things were awry.
There wasn't an onboarding process for new employees, he said. There wasn't a bathroom at one of the field sites, leaving the outdoors as the only option during shifts. And there were crashes. Lots of them.
Skeete lasted less than two years. He said he was denied promotions and ultimately fired in March after sharing concerns about the program and its crashes internally.
Now, almost a year since he was terminated as a program manager, Skeete is suing his former employer in King County Superior Court in Seattle. Through his attorneys, Skeete claims Amazon discriminated against him because he is a Black man and retaliated against him for raising safety concerns about the drone program.
"I care deeply about equal opportunity in the workplace, as well as the safety of Amazon's workers and the surrounding communities," Skeete said in a statement. "I hope this lawsuit holds Amazon accountable for the harm to me, but also encourages and forces them to take safety more seriously in developing their drone program."
Maria Boschetti, a spokesperson for Amazon, said in a statement Friday "these allegations are false and we look forward to proving that in court." The company declined to answer questions about the specific claims.
Back in 2013, Amazon began touting its vision to use autonomous drones to deliver packages — up to 5 pounds — to customers' homes in less than half an hour. After more than two dozen prototypes, the team — Prime Air — began piloting deliveries in Lockeford, California, last year.
As envisioned by Amazon, customers would place orders for Prime Air-eligible items. Drones would then fly to their backyards, hover, release the package and rise back up.
In April 2022, a Bloomberg investigation found the program was beset by technical challenges, high turnover and safety concerns, according to internal documents, government reports and interviews with 13 current and former employees, including Skeete. A crash that June prompted federal regulators to question the drone's airworthiness, Bloomberg wrote.
Skeete began working at the team's Pendleton, Oregon, headquarters in June 2020. On his first day, Skeete said he asked if he could develop an onboarding process for new employees, hoping to fill in a gap he noticed immediately.
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