Orkney islands look to drones to streamline mail deliveries

Unmanned aircraft trial will skip delays caused by boat-battering weather

Mail delivery has long been touted as a use case for drone technology, but it's the wind-blasted archipelago of Orkney, off the coast of northern Scotland, that has beaten the rest of the UK to achieving this.

This week Royal Mail and Skyports Drone Services trumpeted the launch of the Orkney I-Port drone delivery service, backed by the Orkney Islands Council Harbour Authority and Glasgow-based airline Loganair.

The service will initially operate for three months, Royal Mail said, linking three Orkney islands through a drone-based mail distribution system with the intent to extend the project in future. The reason why the archipelago can run the UK's first drone delivery service is down to Orkney's unique geography: the islands are within close proximity of each other.

This means that Orkney I-Port can operate permanently under existing regulatory frameworks for extended visual line of sight (EVLOS) flights rather than beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) permissions.

"EVLOS allows remote pilots to be supported by deployed observers who can maintain visual line of sight with the aircraft and communicate any potential risks or issues back to the remote pilot," according to the Civil Aviation Authority [PDF]. "This enables flights further than 500m from the remote pilot."

BVLOS is an operation in which the remote pilot or observer does not use visual reference to remotely piloted aircraft in the conduct of flight, and requires additional permissions from the Civil Aviation Authority to perform.

Letters and parcels arriving at Royal Mail's delivery office in Kirkwall, Orkney's largest settlement, will be transported over land to Stromness, where Skyports will carry out deliveries with the Speedbird Aero DLV-2 multirotor drone to the islands of Graemsay and Hoy. Postal workers will then pick up the packages and deliver them as usual.

Graemsay and Hoy Islands viewed from Stromness, Orkney Islands, Scotland

Graemsay and Hoy islands viewed from Stromness, Orkney

Though the three islands are all close to each other, they do not enjoy the luxury of being linked by bridges or causeways, like other locations in the archipelago. As a result, mail deliveries would normally have to rely on ferries, and Orkney's often inclement weather can mean delays if boats cannot dock safely.

"The I-Port operation significantly improves service levels and access for rural communities, significantly shortening delivery times to Graemsay and Hoy," Royal Mail claimed.

The Speedbird Aero DLV-2 can carry payloads of up to 6kg. The Register asked Royal Mail what sort of tolerance the aircraft has for high winds, which could possibly put the drones (and mail) at risk, but had not received a reply by the time of publication.

Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland, commented: "I was glad to attend the drone tests and see their development for myself. 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. Royal Mail remains a critical part of keeping the isles connected – and local knowledge and care are vital to that network."

Chris Paxton, Head of Drone Trials at Royal Mail, added: "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."

And Alex Brown, director of Skyports Drone Services, said: "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.

"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."

The I-Port project is supported by the Department for Transport's Freight Innovation Fund, which granted £150,000 ($190,000) to Skyports to test the Orkney operation.

The remote group of islands isn't the only place pushing forward with drone technology in this context. Earlier this year Japan Post announced that it was working with local drone company ACSL to deliver mail via level-four autonomous aircraft. ®

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