The delivery drone revolution that is sweeping the country

Customer Mary Stapleton stands outside her house, waiting for a parcel delivery. But it doesn't arrive by van, or even a courier on a motorcycle.

Postman Tom Nunn on the Isle of Mull with a Royal Mail Skyports drone. Picture: Chris Gorman/Royal Mail
Postman Tom Nunn on the Isle of Mull with a Royal Mail Skyports drone. Picture: Chris Gorman/Royal Mail

Instead a small aircraft, slightly bigger than a microwave oven, but smaller than a fridge, hovers about 50ft above. A hatch drops open in the bottom, and her parcel is lowered by something resembling a fishing line onto her driveway.

"It was fantastic to watch," she says. "It's more convenient than driving round the car park to find a space and waiting at the till."

If this sounds like one of those visions of the future that appears from time to time in technology magazines, but never comes to anything, you might be surprised to hear that the technology is here now – and probably coming to your locality sooner than you realise. So far, the trials by Irish operator Manna have been restricted to the Emerald Isle, but the company has been given the go-ahead to begin a similar trial in Wrexham this year.

Meanwhile, British-based rival Skyports has been using drones to deliver NHS supplies in remote parts of Great Britain, and has also carried out a joint trial with Royal Mail to deliver post.

Closer to home, Dudley-based car manufacturer Westfield and Harper Adams University, near Newport in Shropshire, have been working together in the development of a drone to carry crops and medical supplies to hard-to-reach areas.

Wrexham is one of five locations in Great Britain that are due to take part in the Manna trials this year, the others being Chelmsford, York, Stirling in Scotland, Newbury and Sevenoaks. The company has chosen the locations because of their moderate population densities. At the moment, drones are not effective in inner-city areas where they might need to operate in tight spots, and long-distance deliveries are unprofitable.

Manna, which has completed 65,000 deliveries in Ireland, uses British-built drones which cost about £10,000 each. Customers summon them using an Uber-style mobile phone app, directing them to an open space such as a drive or garden. The drones travel at speeds of up to 50mph, with onboard detectors checking for obstacles. When the drone arrives at its destination, the customer is invited to tap 'accept' on their phone, prompting the drone to lower the package to its destination.

The company's drones are at present limited to packages of 6lbs 10oz, and are limited to a range of 6.25 miles, although the technology is improving all the time.

Drones are regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority, and present legislation says they cannot be flown beyond the controller's sight unless a special licence has been granted. So far just 10 such licences have been authorised.

Royal Mail is using the Skyports service on trials to the Isle of Mull in Scotland

But Transport Secretary Grant Shapps appears keen to see Britain take a leading role in the development of such technology, and has encouraged the CAA to grant licences where requested.

"Delivery drones are no longer the thing of science fiction, but have incredible potential to benefit communities, boost our economy, and make an important environmental contribution," he says.

"As world leaders in aviation technology, we welcome this kind of innovation, which if introduced properly could relieve congestion on our roads, cut emissions and help deliver vital packages and medicines to remote areas."

Manna also operates services in Oranmore, County Galway, and cafe owner Ali Greaney says it has so far proved a huge success.

"It's fantastic for us, giving us an off-lead time generally 25 minutes to half an hour," she says.

Manna communications manager, Naomi Cullen, says the company operates from the roof of the town's Tesco branch, delivering from both the store and from other retailers in the area.

She says: "We can typically deliver anything, items from Tesco, to your local pharmacy for your medical needs, we also have up to 14 local vendors on board, so anything from your local coffee shop delivering coffee and your breakfast, to lunch items as well, right up to dinner time where we have a load of lovely vendors delivering takeaway dinners."

In Oranmore, GPs can consult patients by means of video conferencing, and then send medication out by drones, and one pub delivers hand-pulled pints of Guiness delivered in sealed containers. Manna's founder, Bobby Healy, believes the fact that his company's drones lower the items to the ground without landing gives them the edge over other operators, as it avoids the restrictions surrounding take-off and landing.

"Before we open the cargo bay door, we scan to make sure that it's safe, that it's flat, and there's nobody there," he says. "It takes about six seconds to reach the ground."

And he makes bold claims about the environmental benefits of drone deliveries.

"In the future, we can get our energy from green sources, and there are ways to buy green energy, but most importantly, we don't produce any CO2 and never will," he says.

"The alternative is your average motor vehicle that does suburban deliveries, a car, not a bike.

"A car weighs two and a half, three tons on average and it produces massive emissions, there are different arguments for that.

"But, it's not just CO2, look at the amount of road deaths in the world and the injuries from using the road. Then the subset within that of food delivery drivers that are killed or injured every year. It's significant."

He says his drones, which fly high in the sky, produce far less noise than road vehicles too.

London-based Skyports has been operating larger aircraft over longer distances, most notably working with Royal Mail to deliver post to the Scilly Isles, 70 miles off the Cornish coast. Skyports has been using larger craft than Manna for these deliveries, which are able to carry up to 225lbs, which the company says is about the same as a typical delivery load. It has also used smaller craft, which benefit from vertical take-off and landing, to deliver mail between the different islands.

At the other end of the UK, Skyports trials on the Isle of Mull have seen drones delivering coronavirus tests, medicines and equipment several times a day to an island which is normally only accessible by a ferry which operates just three times a week. Each of the 10-mile deliveries took about 15 minutes, about a third of the time they take by boat.

Piers Massey, an emergency nurse practitioner on the island, says this has meant an improved service for patients.

"We're able to move medicines and blood tests with greater frequency, which means we may not have to move people off the island , which means we can care for them here, which is where most people on this island want to be cared for," he says.

Isle of Mull lighthouse keeper Alex Kershaw with the Royal Mail Skyports drone. Picture: Chris Gorman/Royal Mail

Skyports says since the launch of the trial in February last year, the company has carried more than 800 patients' pathology samples and Covid tests, saving 11,500 hours of patient waiting time.

The company has also worked with Royal Mail to deliver post to the island, the first recipient being lighthouse keeper Alex Kershaw.

Skyports chief executive Duncan Walker says: “Drone technology has already proven its value as part of a network, bringing essential items such as mail or medical equipment to remote regions.

"Working with world-class partners such as Royal Mail, our team at Skyports has conducted a number of successful delivery programmes across the UK and beyond. It’s very gratifying to be part of this new project, using cutting edge technology to connect communities and make a real difference to peoples’ day-to-day lives.”

Isle of Scilly postwoman Amy Richards says: “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.”

But not everyone is convinced. While drone deliveries may well reduce congestion on the roads, there are concerns it will simply replace that with congestion in the skies. Recently formed campaign group UK Drone Watch also voices concerns about the implications for privacy of having thousands of drones flying above our homes and workplaces.

The group, which was formed last year, is calling for tighter regulation on the use of drones to ensure that the public interest is protected.

"There is currently a striking lack of evidence and understanding concerning what the expansion in domestic drone use will mean for the UK in terms of the social and economic costs, risks, and benefits," says a report by the group. "What we do know is that the prospect of beyond-visual-line-of-sight drone flights becoming commonplace in the UK raises clear concerns about safety, privacy, and security amongst the British public."

A Royall Mail Skyports drone in action

Internet giant Amazon, at one time thought to be at the cutting edge of drone technology, announced it had made its first drone delivery in the UK back in 2016. The company boasted that the package had been delivered from its warehouse in Cambridgeshire to a farmhouse in just 13 minutes. What it was less vocal about was that the destination was just 765 yards away, and it would have been quicker to have carried the parcel on foot. Two years ago, then-Amazon executive Jeff Wilke claimed that drone deliveries were 'imminent'. But a report on the Wired website last year claimed that the company's Prime Air drone division was on the brink of collapse, with more than 100 workers having lost their jobs.

Amazon denies the claims. "We remain committed to our development centre in Cambridge where Amazon has hundreds of talented engineers, research scientists and technology experts working across a range of innovations," says a company spokesman. "Prime Air continues to have employees in the UK and will keep growing its presence in the region."

Meanwhile, Bobby Healy has big plans for Manna. He says his entry into the UK market will require at least 40,000 new aircraft, and envisages a time in the near future when a city of 20 million people could replace half of its road deliveries by drone.

And he believes Britain could be at the forefront of this revolution if the Government embraces the technology.

He says: "We believe the UK could be the largest drone delivery market in the world quite quickly if the appetite from Government is there."

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