Royal Mail Begins UK’s First Drone Delivery Postal Service

Royal Mail has begun to deliver post to communities located in the remote Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland.

Royal Mail announced that it has teamed up with drone services provider, Skyports Drone Services, to launch the fully electric drone deliveries in Orkney.

It comes after the Royal Mail had in May 2022 announced that it would increase its use of delivery drones in partnership with logistics drone company Windracers, with the creation of 50 new “postal drone routes” over the next three years.

Drone deliveries in Orkney

Now over a year later, Royal Mail and Skyports Drone Services have commenced deliveries by drone on the Orkney Islands, in a project called the ‘I-Port operation’, which is funded by the Department for Transport’s Freight Innovation Fund.

The I-Port operation works in partnership with Orkney Islands Council Harbour Authority and Loganair.

According to the announcement, Royal Mail and Skyports Drone Services 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, Royal Mail said.

Letters and parcels will be transported from Royal Mail’s Kirkwall (the largest town in Orkney) 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.

Service levels

The project’s ability to offer an uninterrupted delivery service can be impacted by local weather and geography of Orkney.

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, Royal Mail noted.

Despite this, the I-Port operation apparently “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, the Royal Mail claimed.

Skyports Drone Services will utilise the Speedbird Aero DLV-2 multirotor drone, which is capable of carrying payloads of up to 6kg.

Connected Islands

“I was glad to attend the drone tests and see their development for myself,” noted Rt. Hon. Alistair Carmichael MP for Orkney and Shetland. “Obviously these schemes are still at trial stage and so we should temper our expectations.”

“Even so anything that helps to maintain the universal service, especially in areas of the isles which are more difficult to reach, is something that we should give a chance to support,” said Carmichael. “Royal Mail remains a critical part of keeping the isles connected – and local knowledge and care are vital to that network.”

“We are proud to be working with Skyports to deliver via drone to some of the more remote communities that we serve in the UK,” said Chris Paxton, Head of Drone Trials at Royal Mail.

“Using a fully electric drone supports Royal Mail’s continued drive to reduce emissions associated with our operations, whilst connecting the island communities we deliver to.”

Drone rules

The use of drones in the United Kingdom is subject to Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approval.

And there have been times when drones were used in an official capacity. For example in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, Royal Mail trialled a one-month long “air bridge” between Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly using a fixed-wing drone to fly essential mail, PPE and Covid testing kits.

Prior to that in the 1930s, a German rocketeer (Gerhard Zucker) reportedly twice tried to use rockets packed with envelopes to take post between Harris and Scarp in the Outer Hebrides: both rockets exploded.

But the use of drones is not without its challenges.

In January 2021 new drone rules went into force in the UK, designed to harmonise the regulatory environment across Europe, with light-weight vehicles now permitted to fly around people.

The new rules also included clarifications about where drones can be flown, and rules intended to make it easier to trace pilots.

In the UK, drones must be registered with the Civil Aviation Authority.

However, most drones are categorised as “low-risk” and do not require any authorisation, although they are subject to limitations such as where they can fly.

The other two categories are medium- and high-risk, and are subject to stricter regulatory controls.

Low-risk drones are to be managed through the CE mark that governs health and safety requirements for products sold across Europe.

Within this category, drones are grouped into three weight-based categories indicating how close they can be flown to people.

Light-weight drones under 250g in weight can be flown over people, doing away with previous rules that imposed a minimum distance separating drones from congested areas.

Medium-weight drones over 250g must be flown at least 50m away from people, and heavier drones over 2kg must be flown well away from people.

UK users continue to face a requirement to pass the CAA’s official theory test and to have obtained a flyer ID to fly a drone weighing over 250g within 150m of people.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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