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Drones carry post to remote island in Royal Mail trial

Image credit: Brett Jordan | Unsplash

Drones are being used to deliver post to a remote Scottish island in a Royal Mail trial as part of the company's moves to reduce its carbon emissions.

Royal Mail, in conjunction with drone specialists Windracers Ltd, has started a two-week trial of scheduled, autonomous flights between Kirkwall and North Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands to help better connect remote island communities.

The mail is being carried by a large twin-engine, UK-built unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), named Ultra (pictured below, photos as supplied by Royal Mail Group), capable of transporting 100kg of post of all shapes and sizes – equivalent to a typical delivery round.

Letters and parcels will ultimately be hand-delivered by the local postal service representative in the usual way when they reach North Ronaldsay. The island is situated geographically further north than the southern tip of Norway and is home to around 70 people.

The drone trial is part of the Sustainable Aviation Test Environment (SATE) project based at Kirkwall Airport.

Royal Mail drone ready for take off - inline

Image credit: Colin Keldie/SATE | PA Media

Nick Landon, chief commercial officer at Royal Mail, said: “At Royal Mail we care about delivering a brilliant service for all of our customers, wherever they live in the UK. We are also incredibly passionate about protecting our diverse and beautiful environments.

“This trial is designed to help with both of these goals, using the most innovative technologies to support the remote and isolated communities we serve in the greenest way possible.

“The trialling of drone technologies is just one of the ways we are supporting our postmen and postwomen to deliver an amazing service, while reducing our carbon emissions.”

Royal Mail drone ready for take off 2 - inline

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If the trial is successful, the technology will be considered by Royal Mail to support postmen and postwomen in delivering to very remote areas and addresses across the UK.

UAVs can fly in poor weather conditions, including fog, because they are uncrewed, and unlike boat services they are not affected by tides.

Sarah Moore, local postwoman for North Ronaldsay, said: “It’s really exciting to be involved in this trial. North Ronaldsay is a very remote area of the UK and I’m proud to be involved in an initiative that will help Royal Mail to do all we can to keep all areas of the UK connected.”

Charles Scales, chief executive officer at Windracers, said the firm is “delighted” to be operating one of its Ultra UAVs to North Ronaldsay for Royal Mail. He added: “Our autonomous system will deliver an all-weather service for the community and significantly lower carbon emissions.”

Royal Mail drone ready for take off 3 - inline

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This is the third drone trial that Royal Mail has taken part in over the last year. In December 2020, Royal Mail delivered a parcel via drone to a remote lighthouse on the Isle of Mull, which it said was a first for a nationwide UK parcel carrier.

In May 2021, the firm trialled an out-of-sight drone parcel delivery with Windracers Ltd and the first inter-island mail deliveries on the Isles of Scilly - delivering Covid testing kits, health and safety equipment and other items - which it also described as UK firsts.

The trial between Kirkwall and North Ronaldsay began on Monday this week and will run until Friday October 15, with flights taking place on weekdays.

The SATE project is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) via the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

Dougie Cook, Highland and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) general manager north, said: “This is a significant trial for UAVs that form an important part of the SATE project. The facilities at Kirkwall Airport provide an ideal testing centre for this innovative application of UAV technology, which could bring practical benefits to the communities that HIAL serves.”

Drones are increasingly being used for rapid delivery, investigation and research in a wide range of fields.

Swedish researchers have been testing drones to deliver life-saving defibrillators to people with suspected cardiac arrest, as the airborne devices have been shown to be faster than ambulances at reaching their destination.

On Easter Island, researchers from Binghamton University, State University of New York, have demonstrated the effectiveness of using drones to locate freshwater sources in the seas around the remote island.

Last month, University of Cambridge researchers revealed a real-time system that could help prevent drones entering restricted airspace around airports and other sensitive locations, preventing the kind of large-scale disruption seen at Gatwick Airport in December 2018.

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