Royal Mail is to trial the first scheduled drone flights from the mainland to the Isles of Scilly this week.

A large, unmanned, drone will deliver PPE, Covid testing kits and other mail to the islands’ main airport before a smaller device distributes them to postmen and women. The month-long trial could see the end of post being delayed by weather conditions such as fog and, if successful, could be rolled out to other remote locations across the UK.

Project is part of Future Flight Challenge

The project has been developed via a consortium led by DronePrep, Skyports, Consortiq Limited, Excalibur Healthcare Services, University of Southampton and Windracers Limited. It has been funded by the Future Flight Challenge programme which is part of the government’s UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding agency.

The scheduled, autonomous flights will use two different Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to deliver mail. A large, twin-engine, UK-built UAV – from Windracers Limited – will carry mail on a a 27 mile out-of-sight, autonomous flight to the Scilly Isles from the mainland. A smaller Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) drone, operated by Skyports, will then fly parcels between the islands for delivery to recipients.

Nick Landon, chief commercial officer at Royal Mail, said: “We are incredibly proud to find ways to support the more remote and isolated communities we serve.”

He added: “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 while reducing our carbon emissions.”

Drone can carry mail equivalent to a normal delivery round

The drone can carry up to 100kg worth of mail, equivalent to a normal delivery round. It will arrive at Scillies main airport on St Mary’s before being distributed across the islands.

Amy Richards, a postwoman for the Isles of Scilly, said: “There are some really remote areas on these islands, and this is a terrific way to help us reach them. It’s really important for us to do all we can to help all areas of the country stay connected – especially in these difficult times.”

The Royal Mail was the first nationwide carrier to deliver a parcel by drone to a remote lighthouse on the Isle of Mull in Scotland in December 2020.

Business minister Paul Scully said: “The UK is at the forefront of the aviation revolution, developing newer and more fuel-efficient technologies. Royal Mail’s ‘air bridge’ to the Isles of Scilly will not only connect isolated and rural communities, but showcases the real-world potential drones have to truly transform our lives.”

Royal Mail, in collaboration with DronePrep, will be undertaking a consultation with residents and landowners on the use of drones to deliver to rural communities on the island in coming months. The drones will complement existing mail transport to the Isles of Scilly as they are able to fly in poor weather conditions including fog and do not depend on tide conditions, making them better suited to deliver mail to remote island communities.

Trial will also examine fuel efficiencies

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. The trial will also examine fuel efficiencies that the drones could provide, as part of the company’s drive to reduce emissions associated with its operations.

Gareth Whatmore, CEO at DronePrep, said “This project has given us the opportunity to understand how multiple drone delivery platforms can be utilised to overcome and solve real world logistical challenges. With the introduction of drones to complement existing supply chains we have huge opportunity to improve the island connection. It has been a privilege to lead on this project and bring together leading UK drone companies and real end users like Royal Mail and Excalibur Healthcare Services to all learn together how we can use drones to improve the robustness of delivery to remote communities.”

Duncan Walker, CEO at Skyports, added: “Drone technology has already proven its value as part of a network, bringing essential items such as mail or medical equipment to remote regions. Working with world-class partners such as Royal Mail, our team at Skyports has conducted a number of successful delivery programmes across the UK and beyond. It’s very gratifying to be part of this new project, using cutting edge technology to connect communities and make a real difference to peoples’ day to day lives.”

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