UK company to open 50 drone routes for mail delivery

Eighteen months ago, Royal Mail – the leading provider of postal and delivery services in the UK – embarked on an ambitious project to deliver mail and packages to remote islands in the kingdom using drones.

In partnership with drone logistics services companies like Windracers and Skyports, the mailing company opened pilot projects for autonomous delivery drone flights in areas that included the Orkney Islands and the Isles of Scilly; in an effort to help connect better with remote island communities.

Just like how medical drone deliveries work in Africa – only in this case, it was mail being delivered.

The results of those trial projects are now in – and Royal Mail was happy to announce today that it will be scaling up autonomous drone deliveries, to create more than 50 new postal drone routes over the next three years.

The new routes will of course be subject to Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approval.

Royal Mail’s partner in this will be Windracers, a logistics company which designs and builds drones that specialise in the timely delivery of essential air mail and parcel logistics to the people and places that need them. The manufacturer claims their drones are a cost-effective and reliable air mail and parcel delivery solution with no compromise on safety. 

Able to fly in foul weather conditions, the twin-engine, UAV, whose name is Ultra, can carry payloads of 100kg up to distances of 1,000km. It has a wingspan of 10metres, has a reliable autopilot system and only needs a short take-off and landing distance.

The 50 new drone routes will be supported by up to 200 drones over the next three years. Not surprisingly, the Isles of Scilly and Orkney Islands will be among the pioneer regular routes, which also include the Shetland islands and the Hebrides.

Once they get delivered to the communities, the letters and parcels will then be delivered by the local postie in conventional ways – postmen and postwomen on their bikes and scooters.

Flights to North Ronaldsay on the Orkney Islands, for example, will support a community of around 70 people with a service that is expected to be less affected by poor weather, while reducing emissions.

In the long run, Royal Mail aims to deploy a fleet of more than 500 drones servicing all corners of the UK.

“On time delivery regardless of our customers location or the weather, whilst protecting our environment is our goal Simon Thompson, Chief Executive Officer at Royal Mail, said. “Even though we go everywhere, Royal Mail already has the lowest carbon dioxide emissions per parcel delivered, this initiative will help reduce our emissions even further.”

In their statement, Royal Mail said UAVs can help further reduce the company’s carbon emissions and improve the reliability of island mail services. Currently, they use ferries, conventional aircraft and land-based delivery which can be affected by bad weather.

The pilot trials that got the company here were part of the SATE project funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) via the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

The last trial was held last month on the Shetland Islands, which saw test flights for the new service delivering mail between Tingwall Airport in Lerwick to Unst – a 50-mile round trip.

Unst has a population of around 630 people and is Britain’s most northerly inhabited island.

 “The middle mile of supply and logistics, especially to remote locations, has long been overlooked by the industry and is ripe for innovation,” said Stephen Wright, Chairman at Windracers Group. “We’ve spent the last five years focused on developing the most commercially viable essential logistics drones so we’re truly delighted to be working with Royal Mail on this ambitious and pioneering deployment of autonomous aircraft. It puts the UK firmly at the forefront of this exciting sector.”


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