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Royal Mail set to expand use of drones for delivery to island destinations

A drone takes part in Royal Mail postal deliveries. Image: SWNS/courtesy of Royal Mail

Royal Mail is set to expand its use of drones for mail and parcel delivery to remote communities, subject to approval from the Civil Aviation Authority.

The delivery company has already tested its use of UAVs (uncrewed aerial vehicles) in four drone trials in the last 18 months – including to the Isles of Mull and Scilly and between Kirkwall and North Ronaldsay on the Orkney Islands. Now it plans to develop more than 50 drone routes, operated by up to 200 drones, over the next three years. Long-term, it aims to have more than 500 drones serving all corners of the UK.

Simon Thompson, chief executive of Royal Mail, says “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.”

The latest trial was held last month on the Shetland Islands in partnership with logistics drone company Windracers Group. Royal Mail successfully delivered mail between Tingwall Airport in Lerwick to Unst, 50 miles away. Unst, with a population of about 630 people is Britain’s most northerly inhabited island.

The trial involved a twin-engine UAV has a wingspan of 10 metres and runs on an autopilot system. It can carry up to 100kg of mail on two daily return flights between the islands. Letters and parcels are then delivered from there by the local post.

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.”

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. The Royal Mail says that lower-emission drones can help reduce its carbon emissions and will help to make its current island mail services more reliable, since they can currently be affected by bad weather.

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