The University of Southampton has worked with Royal Mail on a trial of fully autonomous scheduled drone flights. The trial will see the Company use Uncrewed Aerial Vehicle (UAV) flights to deliver Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), COVID testing kits and other mail to the Isles of Scilly.
The Government-funded project, which has been developed in partnership with DronePrep, Skyports, Consortiq Limited, Excalibur Healthcare Services and Windracers Limited, will initially have a particular focus on helping to fight the pandemic by delivering crucial PPE and testing kits to the islands’ most vulnerable and remote communities.
Mail will be flown to the islands’ airport in St. Mary’s by the twin-engine Windracers ULTRA which was designed and built by engineers at the University of Southampton, led by Professor Jim Scanlon. The ULTRA can carry up to 100kg worth of mail at a time – equivalent to a typical delivery round.
In the latest trials, staff from the University of Southampton with Windracers will oversee the flight from mobile control centres on the mainland and at St Marys. The route that the UAV takes involves being roughly 70 miles out of sight before it reaches its destination.
Ahead of the first flights, Tom Cherrett, Professor of Logistics and Transport Management at the University of Southampton, led a team testing the impact that vibrations from the drone could have on the cargo to determine the best way to make deliveries without causing any damage.
Professor Scanlon said, “The ULTRA is the ideal vehicle to complement existing ways to transport mail to the Isles. It can fly at up to one hundred miles an hour so it can get there quickly; it can also operate in poor weather conditions and is not dependent on tides.”
This is the second time the University team and Windracers have responded to the potential need to transport urgent medical supplies to remote locations during the pandemic. In May, they successfully flew a consignment of medical supplies across the Solent to the Isle of Wight with the ULTRA as part of a trial with Solent Transport.
Prof Cherrett said, “These trials will not only help us see the capability of the ULTRA, they will also be invaluable in getting the logistics right on both ends of the operation. As well as providing a means to make urgent deliveries in the immediate circumstances, this will all contribute to the learning process of how autonomous systems will function alongside traditional supply chains in the future.”
If the trial is successful, the technology will be considered by Royal Mail to help identify opportunities to support postmen and postwomen in delivering to very remote areas and addresses across the UK.
Amy Richards, local postwoman for the Isles of Scilly, said: “It’s great to be involved in this initiative. There are some really remote areas on these islands, and this is a terrific way to help us reach them. It’s really important for us to do all we can to help all areas of the country stay connected – especially in these difficult times.”
Nick Landon, Chief Commercial Officer at Royal Mail, said: “This is a hugely significant project for us, and we are incredibly proud to find ways to support the more remote and isolated communities we serve. 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 in delivering fast and convenient services for all of our customers while reducing our carbon emissions.”