January 27, 2021
In 2000 B.C., ancient Egyptians became the first civilization to use a mail system. Letters discussing political developments between the Pharaohs Amenhotep and Akhenaten were placed into a box and curried along the Nile River with armed guards. In the early 300’s B.C., letters between educated political representatives were being delivered by horses, mules, and donkeys. As technology progressed and railways were built in the 1800’s, mail services became available to anyone who could write, read, or hire someone to write and read for them. Today we take for granted just how quickly and easily anyone can send and receive mail.
While much of the world has easy access to postal services, there are still remote areas lacking such a basic amenity. Some parts of the world still have to rely on waiting for a plane, ship, train, or vehicle to pick up and deliver mail every few months. Such is the case for the remotely located Isle of Mull off the west coast of Scotland. The island is the second largest of the Inner Hebrides and has a population of a little less than 3,000 people. The island has a postal system, but there is one remote location that is cut off from much of the island, including postal deliveries. The Rubha nan Gall Lighthouse on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula is about a mile away from the main town of Tobermory and has no vehicle access. Its remoteness positioned the lighthouse as a perfect location for a trial drone delivery orchestrated by one of the oldest and longest running postal services in the world.
In 1516, King Henry VIII established a Master of Posts, which would soon become the Royal Mail, to send messages to political allies. By 1635, King Charles I saw that this postal service became available to the public. Today the Royal Mail serves all of the United Kingdom. Keith Williams, the current Executive Chairman of Royal Mail, announced that he intended to see that even the most remote reaches of the UK, like the Scilly Isles off the southwestern tip of Cornwall, receive rapid mail delivery with the help of unmanned vehicles. This would be a first for any state postal provider. To test the validity of an official drone postal program, Royal Mail teamed up with DronePrep, Skyports, and What3words to deliver a parcel to Alexa Krenshaw at the Rubha nan Gall Lighthouse with a drone.
Each company played a specific job in this drone mission. Royal Mail was the mail provider and overall coordinator. Skyports provided the actual drone, while DronePrep provided the platform to operate the mission. What3words helps create precise geospacing maps by assigning every 3×3 meter area of land on earth a unique 3 letter identification code. Alexa arranged for parcel delivery. The Royal Mail routed the parcel to the coordinating postcode station. From the post office the local carrier, Tom Nunn, saw that the package was loaded into the belly of the Skyport drone. Once the package was secure the drone lifted off and soared across the bay to land on the grass in front of the lighthouse. Alexa retrieved the package, and the drone returned to base. “I am very pleased to be involved in this fantastic trial. It is an exciting opportunity to test out new ways of working to support us posties that deliver in some of the most remote areas of the UK,” said Tom Nunn. “Some of the houses on the Isle of Mull include a thirty-minute walk to the front door so the use of drones will be a huge help!”
The first drone delivery trial for Royal Mail was a huge success. For much of the world, we don’t realize how easy it is to quickly receive mail and packages. We tend not to think of how hard it is for our mail carriers to complete their jobs promptly. When carriers have to access remote locations, their jobs become harder, and even dangerous at times. Royal Mail is setting a precedent for how everyone can have equal rapid mail service. With modern technology, mail delivery has come a long way from being carried down the Nile River. But as CEO of DronePrep Gareth Whatmore points out, there is still room for growth in the industry. “There’s a huge opportunity here for Royal Mail to grow with the drone industry,” he said. “And if we do that together, we can connect up new communities in a better way than we currently do and grow into the 21st century. So it’s a real sort of beacon of innovation that’s being approached by all parties.”