17-05-2022 | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, Royal Mail announced that it plans to create a fleet of over 500 drones to deliver mail to remote residents to improve logistics and reduce costs. What challenges do remote residents present to Royal Mail, what will Royal Mail explore, and could this use of drones ignite a new industry?
Living in a town or city presents many benefits for most people, including ease of access, fast parcel deliveries, takeaways, nightlife, and services. Of course, this comes at the cost of increased crime, generally greater stress levels, and less access to green spaces. Additionally, living in the countryside also has its benefits, whether it is access to large green areas, little traffic, slower-paced living, and better living conditions, but the poor access to offices and shops can make living in the countryside difficult.
But then there are those that live in extremely remote areas where local hospitals can be a two-hour drive, is only accessible by boat, or have such poor cellular reception that contacting emergency services may be an impossibility. Typically, these places are found on islands (commonly around the north tip of Scotland) or in the midst of a remote region surrounded by mountains, hills, forests, and lakes.
For Royal Mail, these remote places present real logistical and economic challenges for numerous reasons. Firstly, Royal Mail has a strict costing rule that doesn’t discriminate based on location inside the UK; sending a letter to your neighbour is the same cost as sending it to a remote house on the Shetland Islands. This is problematic as economies of scale make sending mail to a single house a hundred miles off the coast extremely expensive.
Secondly, getting access to such remote communities can be a logistical nightmare with the need for planes, boats, or special vehicles that can handle the terrain (remember that remote communities will often have poor roads due to a lack of use). Considering that it can take hours to get a single delivery driver from a sorting facility to a remote community, it results in Royal Mail effectively hiring a worker whose sole purpose is to deliver the odd piece of mail to a few individuals.
Thirdly, remote communities are often found in exposed areas (such as the tip of Cornwall and the Shetland Islands) and, as such, can experience violent weather. This is not only difficult to traverse but can even present a serious risk to those delivering mail.
Recognising the challenges faced with remote communities, Royal Mail recently announced that it will be looking at using a fleet of up to 500 drones to target remote communities and provide a safer, more efficient delivery service.
Over the next three years, Royal Mail will start with getting 200 drones operational that will be used to ship mail on 50 routes to the Isle of Scilly, Shetland Islands, Orkney Islands, and the Hebrides. However, the service is still awaiting approval from the Civil Aviation Authority as the use of unmanned aerial vehicles is still in its infancy, and strong measures must be implemented to ensure safe operation. For example, drones that fly autonomously must be aware of the environment around them, other craft in the air, potential violent weather fronts, and places best to land in the event of an emergency.
Currently, Royal Mail has already conducted tests using autonomous drones on a route between the mainland and the Shetland Islands. Furthermore, the drones being used are not the hovering variety but instead miniaturised planes meaning that their use will be solely for bulk delivery of goods regularly. The experimental drones have a wingspan of over 10m, can carry up to 100KG, are powered using combustion engines, and are able to travel up to 1000km.
The use of drones to deliver packages is not a new idea, as many other companies (including Amazon) are looking into their use. However, the difference between Royal Mail and Amazon is that Royal Mail has a practical use for drones that goes beyond gimmicks and convenience; their drones will be essential for remote communities.
When Royal Mail gets permission from the CAA to start flying their drones, it will set a precedent for all other drone operators; using drones for delivery can be done legally. At this point, there will be a greater economic interest in launching drone projects as CAA permission is possible.
Furthermore, Royal Mail will need to use traffic awareness systems such as PilotAware, which combines traffic and location technologies to provide the operator with real-time traffic information. Once proven to work, the technology will then be accessible to other companies, which will help accelerate the development of drone delivery systems.