Royal Mail launches cargo drone test flights


Royal mail is running a series of test flights of an autonomous cargo drone to the Isles of Scilly in the UK.

The month-long series of autonomous test flights between Perran porth Airfield in Cornwall on the mainland and St Mary’s on the Isles of Scilly are using Windracer’s Ultra UAV for a scheduled 70 mile (110km) long BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) route. The flights are the first time a delivery company has delivered mail using an autonomous drone to the UK Channel Islands.

The trials also include inter-island drone flights using a smaller vertical take-off and landing drones that will deliver mail to recipients around the Isles of Scilly, operated by drone company Skyports.

As well as mail, the scheduled drone service will deliver critical Personal Protective Equipment and Covid testing kits to the islands.

The twin-engine fixed-wing Windracers Ultra drone is capable of carrying 100kg (220 lbs) over 1,000km (620kg) but will carry half that amount during the trial. The Ultra drone has been designed in partnership with the University of Southampton primarily to distribute cargo for humanitarian aid.

Windracers drone

The Windracers drone taking off for a scheduled cargo flight to the Scilly Isles

The Ultra’s flight control systems have been developed by Distributed Avionics, part of the Windracers group, including the autonomous systems, which use proprietary technology and cloud-based mission management software.

The UAVs will be used in addition to existing forms of mail transport to the Isles of Scilly. Royal Mail is interested in the Ultra drone because as it is unscrewed and not dependent on tides it can fly in poor weather conditions and be used as a backup logistics system.

The trial will also examine fuel efficiencies that the drones could provide, as part of Royal Mail’s aim to reduce operational emissions.

If the Isles of Scilly trial is successful, the technology will be considered by Royal Mail for regular deliveries to very remote areas and addresses across the UK. In December, Royal Mail delivered a parcel via drone to a remote lighthouse on the Isle of Mull in Scotland and a consultation is being undertaken to establish a regular service.

Charles Scales, CEO at Windracers said, “This project has proven the efficiency and robustness of Ultra, with each round trip being 211km and being completed in less than two hours.

“With our unique CAA permissions, this will be the first time a large, economic, load carrying UAV is used between the Isles of Scilly and mainland Cornwall in a month-long trial.”

The UK Government-funded flight test program involves Royal Mail, Windracers, the University of Southampton, Skyports, software company DronePrep, medical company Excalibur Healthcare Services, and drone operations firm Consortiq.

Nick Landon, chief commercial officer at Royal Mail said, “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.” 

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Ben has worked as a journalist and editor, covering technology, engineering and industry for the last 20 years. Initially writing about subjects from nuclear submarines to autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies, he was editor of a leading UK-based engineering magazine before becoming editor of Aerospace Testing in 2017.

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