UK trial tests drone postal deliveries to remote communities as part of Future Flight Challenge

The UK Royal Mail has started a trial of scheduled, autonomous flights for two weeks between Kirkwall and North Ronaldsay (both in the Orkney Islands) with Windracers Ltd to help better connect remote island communities. In doing so, Royal Mail is taking the first steps towards the Company’s goal of developing permanent, reliable, lower emission delivery solutions for remote communities entirely by an Uncrewed Aerial Vehicle (UAV).

The flight trials, which form part of the SATE project funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) via the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, will use a large, twin-engine, UK-built UAV named ULTRA. The UAV has been designed, built and operated by Windracers Ltd to carry mail from Kirkwall Airport on the Orkney mainland to the island community of North Ronaldsay, a 35-mile flight each way. Further north than the southern tip of Norway, North Ronaldsay is the furthest flung of the Orkney Islands. The trial will support the community of around 70 people on North Ronaldsay with a service that is expected to be less affected by poor weather, while reducing emissions.

The Windracers ULTRA UAV can carry 100kg of mail of all shapes and sizes – equivalent to a typical delivery round – enabling the transportation of all mail bound to and from the island community of North Ronaldsay. Letters and parcels will then be delivered by the local postie in the usual way when they reach the island.

If the trial is successful, the technology will be considered by Royal Mail to support postmen and postwomen in delivering to very remote areas and addresses across the UK. UAVs can fly in poor weather conditions, including fog, because they are uncrewed, and unlike boat services they are not affected by tides. This could make them well suited to help Royal Mail better service remote island communities and provide deliveries in all weathers while also helping to protect some of our most beautiful environments.

The trial is part of the Sustainable Aviation Test Environment (SATE) project based at Kirkwall Airport operated by Highlands and Islands Limited (HIAL) in the Orkney Islands, Scotland. The Windracers UAV trials will demonstrate how this technology can be used to provide real-life service demands and improve connectivity between remote communities.

The SATE project is part of the Future Flight Challenge funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. Led by HIAL, SATE is the UK’s first low-carbon aviation test centre embedded in an operational airport. The project is hosting trials of aviation technologies including low-carbon aircraft and UAVs. 

This is the third drone trial that Royal Mail has taken part in over the last year. In December 2020, Royal Mail became the first nationwide UK parcel carrier to deliver a parcel for recipients via drone to a remote lighthouse on the Isle of Mull in Scotland. In May 2021, Royal Mail delivered two more UK firsts: the first UK drone parcel delivery beyond visual line of site with Windracers Ltd, and the first inter-island deliveries on the Isles of Scilly.

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