Royal Mail has announced the first out-of-sight autonomous drone flights between the UK mainland and an island, testing deliveries to the Isles of Scilly.
Using a Windracers drone, the test – a route of 70 miles out of sight – will deliver PPE and testing kits to the islands’ most vulnerable and remote communities.
Another drone, operated by Skyports, will then be used to transport items to a number of delivery points throughout the islands.
Being able to fly in poor weather conditions with no interference from tides means the drones, or unscrewed aerial vehicles, can reach places that are difficult for other vehicles to navigate.
Between the twin-engine Windracers capable of carrying up to 100kg and the smaller vertical take-off and landing Skyports drone, the trial will showcase how different UAVs can be used to complement each other.
While the trial initially focuses on delivering PPE and testing kits, it could have groundbreaking implications for businesses in a wide range of sectors – though regular use in cities is still far off.
Alex Brown, head of operations at Skyports, said: “The way it rolls out is rural first. And that’s because that’s where the regulatory approvals can be obtained from the Civil Aviation Authority, because the risk levels are lower.”
Drone deliveries are less of a priority in urban areas at the moment. Besides regulatory challenges in busy cities, the financial case does not add up the way it does in isolated places where transportation can be complicated and time-consuming.
Brown said: “You’re replacing a person driving a van, who then waits at a port for a ferry and then boards the ferry and then waits for three hours and then gets off. It’s a really long, expensive chunk of the supply chain.
“So it makes sense today financially. We can absolutely undercut that price: drone delivery can do it much, much cheaper. The same can’t be said – generally speaking, but there are exceptions – for urban deliveries.”
In the short- to medium-term, drone deliveries will likely not have a significant impact on where businesses locate their warehouses or logistics. The impact will be in whom they can reach and how efficiently they can transport goods to places they couldn’t previously reach easily.
Logistics giant DB Schenker last year invested in mobility startup Volocopter amid their development of a drone that can carry up to 200kg. The question for them is how they can incorporate those heavy pilot drones into their logistics distribution centres in key locations.
But while drone deliveries for everyday items in cities will likely materialise one day, the focus will continue to be on delivering essential goods and services for people in more rural communities.
Skyports is working with the CAA to solve regulatory challenges, particularly related to airspace and the risks to other aircrafts as it continues working on trials.
Like the Royal Mail, the NHS has teamed up with Skyports to carry out trials in real world environments, delivering tests and samples to other isolated communities. Brown said he expects 2022 to be the key year for drone deliveries in the UK with permanent daily operations taking off then.
In the meantime, the Isles of Scilly trials are a significant milestone for UK drone flights, with Royal Mail becoming the first UK parcel carrier to deliver mail to a UK island in an out-of-sight autonomous flight. The company is also the first to trial inter-island drone flights.
Nick Landon, CEO of Royal Mail, said: “Two more major UK firsts is hugely significant for us, and we are incredibly proud to find ways to support the more remote and isolated communities we serve. This is part of our constant drive to incorporate the best and most innovative technologies into our network.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in parcel volumes since the start of the pandemic, and this is just one of the ways we are looking to support our postmen and postwomen in delivering fast and convenient services for all our customers while reducing our carbon emissions.”
The trial is a government-funded project developed by Royal Mail, DronePrep, Skyports, Consortiq, University of Southampton, Excalibur Healthcare Services and Windracers.