Royal Mail trials drone deliveries in Orkney

The UK’s Royal Mail is trialling scheduled, autonomous UAV flights in Scotland’s Orkney Islands.

A fortnight-long trial of scheduled, autonomous flights between Kirkwall and North Ronaldsay, a distance of 35 miles, began this week in collaboration with UAV specialist Windracers.

The flight trials will use a large, twin-engine, UK-built UAV named ULTRA which was designed, built and operated by Windracers to carry mail from Kirkwall Airport to North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of the Orkney Islands. The trial will support the island’s 70-strong community by providing 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. This is the equivalent of a typical delivery round, meaning that the ULTRA can transport all mail bound to and from North Ronaldsay. Letters and parcels will be delivered in the usual way when they reach the island, according to Royal Mail.

Royal Mail staff with Windracers ULTRA
If successful in Orkney, the UAV may be used to serve other island communities
Colin Keldie/ SATE

If the trial is successful, Royal Mail will consider rolling out the technology to support postmen and postwomen in delivering to very remote areas and addresses across the UK. As they are uncrewed, UAVs can fly in poor weather conditions, including fog, 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.

The trial is part of the Sustainable Aviation Test Environment (SATE) project based at Kirkwall Airport, which is operated by Highlands and Islands Limited (HIAL). 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.