Royal Mail has announced a trial of the first out-of-sight, autonomous scheduled drone flights between the UK mainland and an island.
The trial will see Royal Mail use unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flights to deliver personal protective equipment (PPE), Covid testing kits and other mail between the Cornish mainland and the Isles of Scilly.
As part of the trial, Royal Mail has also become the first organisation to execute inter-island parcel deliveries across the Scillies.
Nick Landon, chief commercial officer at Royal Mail, said: “Two more major UK firsts is hugely significant for us, and we are incredibly proud to find ways to support the more remote and isolated communities we serve.
“This is part of our constant drive to incorporate the best and most innovative technologies into our network.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in parcel volumes since the start of the pandemic, and this is just one of the ways we are looking to support our postmen and postwomen in delivering fast and convenient services for all of our customers.”
The UK government-funded project, developed in partnership with DronePrep, Skyports, Consortiq, the University of Southampton, Excalibur Healthcare Services and Windracers, will initially focus on helping to fight the pandemic by delivering PPE and test kits to the islands’ most vulnerable and remote communities.
Parcels will be flown to the islands’ airport in St Mary’s, by a UK-built twin-engine Windracers Ultra UAV, which can carry up to 100kg worth of mail at a time – equivalent to a typical delivery round.
The Windracers drone is also able to accommodate mail of most shapes and sizes, enabling more general mail to be transported to the islands as part of the trial.
Furthermore, Windracers, in partnership with the drone delivery arm of air mobility company Skyports, will showcase how UAVs of different sizes could be used to complement each other in future.
Thus, a smaller VTO (vertical take-off and landing) drone, operated by Skyports, will be used to transport items to a number of delivery points throughout the islands.
The autonomous flight route that the UAV takes involves being roughly 70 miles out of sight before it reaches its destination.
Designed to complement existing forms of transport for mail to the Isles of Scilly, the UAVs are able to fly in poor weather conditions, including fog, uncrewed and are not dependent on tides.
According to Royal Mail, this could potentially make them well suited to help the company better service remote island communities.
If the trial is successful, the technology will be considered by Royal Mail to help identify opportunities to support postmen and postwomen in delivering to very remote areas and addresses across the UK.
In coming months, a consultation will be undertaken with residents on the use of drones to deliver to rural communities on the island.
The trial will also examine fuel efficiencies that the drones could provide, as part of Royal Mail’s drive to reduce emissions associated with its operations.