Royal Mail has announced plans to create more than 50 new postal drone routes over the next three years, subject to Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approval.
The uncrewed drones, or UAVs (Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles) are part of a partnership with logistics drone company Windracers.
Island communities across the Isles of Scilly, Shetland Islands, Orkney Islands and the Hebrides would be the first to benefit. Such communities have previously relied on ferries, conventional aircraft and land-based delivery, all of which can be impacted by bad weather.
Royal Mail is looking to secure more than 50 drone routes, supported by up to 200 drones, over the next three years. Longer term the ambition is to deploy a fleet of more than 500 Royal Mail-Windracers drones supporting deliveries across the UK.
The announcement follows Royal Mail’s latest drone trial on the Shetland Islands with Windracers Group. It has already conducted four drone trials over the last 18 months including flights on the Isle of Mull in Scotland, on the Isles of Scilly off the Cornish coast and between Kirkwall and North Ronaldsay, on the Orkney Islands.
The latest trial was held in April on the Shetland Islands and saw Royal Mail deliver mail between Tingwall Airport in Lerwick to Unst – a 50-mile flight each way. Unst has a population of around 630 people and is Britain’s most northerly inhabited island.
With a capability to fly in difficult weather conditions, the twin-engine UAV used in the trial has a wingspan of 10 metres and incorporates a high-reliability autopilot system. They can carry up to 100kg of mail of all shapes and sizes for two daily return flights between the islands. Letters and parcels are then delivered by the local postie. The trial was part of the Sustainable Aviation Test Environment (SATE) project funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.
Simon Thompson, chief executive officer at Royal Mail, said:“On time delivery regardless of our customers’ location or the weather, whilst protecting our environment is our goal. Even though we go everywhere, Royal Mail already has the lowest CO2 emissions per parcel delivered, this initiative will help reduce our emissions even further.”
Stephen Wright, Chairman at Windracers Group, said: “The middle mile of supply and logistics, especially to remote locations, has long been overlooked by the industry and is ripe for innovation. 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.”