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Royal Mail trials fully electric drones in Orkney – could drone deliveries take off?

Royal Mail|

Royal Mail and Skyports Drone Services have launched the Orkney I-Port operation, a drone delivery project which will see letters and parcels transported to Royal Mail staff on Graemsay and Hoy.

Established in partnership with Orkney Islands Council Harbour Authority and Loganair, the collaboration have established a daily inter-island mail distribution service between three islands on Orkney. The project will initially operate for three months, with the intent to extend in the future.

This is the first UK drone delivery project which can be conducted on a permanent basis under existing regulatory frameworks. This is due to the unique landscape of Orkney and the proximity of the islands to one another. This allows for flights to be conducted using extended visual line of sight (EVLOS) permissions rather than beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) permissions.

Letters and parcels will be transported from Royal Mail’s Kirkwall delivery office to Stromness, from where Skyports Drone Services will conduct drone deliveries to Royal Mail staff on Graemsay and Hoy. From these locations, postal workers will then carry out their usual island delivery routes.

The weather and geography of Orkney can impact the ability to provide an uninterrupted delivery service. For example, pauses in the ferry schedule – by which some mail is transported – are common during poor weather due to the challenges of docking safely. The I-Port operation significantly improves service levels and access for rural communities, significantly shortening delivery times to Graemsay and Hoy.

The use of electric drones for inter-island delivery will also bring significant safety improvements, ensuring postal workers can deliver between ports and marinas throughout Orkney without risk. There will also be emission savings.

Skyports Drone Services will conduct the inter-island flights with the Speedbird Aero DLV-2 aircraft. The multirotor drone is capable of carrying payloads of up to 6kg.

The I-Port is one of the nine winning projects of the Freight Innovation Fund Accelerator, a programme funded by the Department for Transport and delivered by the Connected Places Catapult to support innovators with grant funding and business advice. Skyports received £150,000 of grant funding to test Orkney I-Port operation as a part of the programme.

“By leveraging drone technology, we are revolutionising mail services in remote communities, providing more efficient and timely delivery, and helping to reduce the requirement for emissions-producing vehicles,” said Alex Brown, director, Skyports Drone Services.

“We’re pleased to once again be partnering with Royal Mail to demonstrate how drone operations can benefit UK logistics on this project. The I-Port project also marks an exciting milestone as it is the first operation we are completing with aircraft partner Speedbird.”

Are wide-scale drone deliveries the future?
As Royal Mail’s latest trial highlights, Orkney is the perfect test bed for such drone operations. Rural locations are often let down by traditional last mile methods, and innovation is needed to change this. There have been several examples of how drones can get parcels – and important medical equipment – to hard to reach places.

According to McKinsey, there were 2,000 commercial drone deliveries early last year. As this technology develops this number is likely to grow.

However, there are limitations and regulations that could stop these flying deliveries taking off on a large scale. Beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) permissions will limit the use of drones, and while the Civil Aviation Authority is working to allow “authorised operators to operate BVLOS in a scaled, sustainable way,” it has admitted this could take years.

There is also huge investment needed in not only the unmanned aerial vehicles but the infrastructure required to operate these solutions. Many firms may not be willing to take this risk until demand increases, and even then there are hurdles to overcome.

Ecommerce giant Amazon halted its Prime Air drone testing in the UK in 2021, with operations described by insiders as “dysfunctional” and resembled “organised chaos”, run by managers that were “detached from reality”.

There will be questions if a tech giant such as Amazon can’t get delivery drones off the ground, will anyone?

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