UK postal service tests autonomous drone deliveries to remote islands

The drones will be used to carry COVID testing kits and assorted mail.

Chris Gorman / Royal Mail

It's not just online and big-box retailers that are exploring deliveries by drone. Following in the footsteps of the Swiss Post, the UK's Royal Mail is the latest postal service to trial drone flights. The company has announced a landmark project to deliver packages — including personal protective equipment, COVID testing kits and assorted mail — to a UK island using an autonomous Uncrewed Aerial Vehicle (UAV).

As part of the government-backed project, a large drone will take off from the mainland and fly to the Scilly Isles (a remote archipelago off the Cornish coast in southwest England). The twin-engine UAV can carry up to 100kg of mail of all shapes and sizes, which the Royal Mail said is equivalent to a typical delivery round. Thereafter, a smaller vertical take-off and landing drone will be used to fly parcels between the islands to recipients.

According to the Royal Mail, the drones will be flown out of sight of any operator during the entire 70-mile journey. The month-long trial is being conducted with a group of partners including the University of Southampton and drone companies Windracers, Skyports and Consortiq, among others.

The Royal Mail made its first drone delivery last December by sending a package to a lighthouse on the Isle of Mull in Scotland. It's planning to consult with residents in rural communities on the use of UAVs to deliver mail. If the latest experiment is a success, Royal Mail said it would consider using drones to transport parcels to remote areas across the UK.

Any failures could prove costly, however. Just ask Russia, which saw an inaugural postal drone flight crash into the side of a building back in 2018. The UAV reportedly cost about $20,000.