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The University of Southampton

Southampton drone technology enables post delivery to remote Scottish residents

Published: 5 November 2021
ULTRA, the UK's largest civilian unmanned aircraft

Drone technology designed by engineers at Southampton is being used to deliver mail to residents on two remote Scottish islands.

Royal Mail is using ULTRA (Unmanned Low cost TRansport Aircraft) to carry out the two-week trial where scheduled autonomous drone flights are taking the mail between Kirkwall and North Ronaldsay.

ULTRA was designed for drone operating company Windracers by postdoctoral engineering researchers at Southampton led by Professor Jim Scanlan, Head of the University’s Computational Engineering and Design Group. It is the UK’s largest civilian unmanned aircraft that has been specifically created for long range cargo transport missions. Fuel-powered and twin-engined, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can carry 100kg and will operate from Kirkwall Airport on the 35-mile each-way flight. On arrival, letters and parcels will then be delivered to the 70 residents by the local postwoman.

The trial is part of the UK Research and Innovation-funded SATE project that aims to better connect remote island communities.

Jim said: “This is a major step forward in proving the commercial viability of logistics operations for communities that have poor transport connections. We are very proud to have played our part in developing the Windracers’ vision which will ultimately be used for humanitarian aid food delivery at scale.”

ULTRA’s airframe has been designed to operate from unprepared airfields with minimal infrastructure and uses well-proven fabric-covered aluminium construction for maximum robustness against the elements. Its lifting body fuselage has been designed to be as easy to load and unload as an estate car featuring hinged rear access to the payload bay. The aircraft can also be equipped with payload releasing mechanism to deploy the cargo for remote resupply or delivery missions. It is equipped with one of the world’s most advanced flight control systems whose high reliability technology has been patented by ex-university students and is being exploited by a UK company called Distributed Avionics.

According to the European Marine Energy Centre: “If the trial is successful, the technology will be considered by Royal Mail to support postmen and postwomen in delivering to very remote areas and addresses across the UK. UAVs can fly in poor weather conditions, including fog, because they are un-crewed, and, unlike boat services, they are not affected by tides. This could make them suited to help Royal Mail better service remote island communities and provide deliveries in all weathers.”

Southampton’s ULTRA technology has already been put to the test when it was used in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic to deliver medical supplies across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. The consignment became the first cargo to be to be carried by drone and delivered to the Pathology Department at St Mary’s Hospital.

The flight was part of an innovative trial by Solent Transport, the University of Southampton and Windracers to use an UAV to assist the hospital in its response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

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