back to article Orkney islands look to drones to streamline mail deliveries

Mail delivery has long been touted as a use case for drone technology, but it's the wind-blasted archipelago of Orkney, off the coast of northern Scotland, that has beaten the rest of the UK to achieving this. This week Royal Mail and Skyports Drone Services trumpeted the launch of the Orkney I-Port drone delivery service, …

  1. Joe W Silver badge

    Yeah, bad weather is a problem

    not only for the ferries, as mentioned in the article "The Register asked Royal Mail what sort of tolerance the aircraft has for high winds, which could possibly put the drones (and mail) at risk"

    So: how narrow is the window of conditions that it is too bad for the ferry but still ok for a f'ing flying object? Sure, the air-fly-thing is unmanned (un-personed?), but still, strong winds, gusts, heavy rain cause problems (especially for a relatively light-weight UAV). Still, good luck to them!

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

      That triggered me as well. How well do mail drones do in gusting winds on an island ?

      Or, to be more specific, just how much energy is the drone going to need to get back to shore from a mile out, several times a day, and can it handle that ?

      There's got to be a maximum wind speed for those things, and before implementing this project I think it would be highly useful to have the daily average of windspeed and check against max windspeed.

      I mean, before buying a fleet of those things, preferably.

      1. Little Mouse

        Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

        I don't think that it's average windspeeds we need to worry about. It's the sudden gusts that are going to bring these babies down.

        ISTR a horrific boat race around 10 years ago. The maximum windspeeds were well outside the "safe" tolerance levels, but the forecasters only published the average expected speeds. That mix-up resulted in fatalities.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

          Indeed. Helicopters are quite vulnerable to wind gusts, and smaller ones most likely even more so (less inertia). Weather conditions where big ships can't move but drones can (huge waves with little wind) are very rare and far between.

          This sounds like either a bad, hype-fueled idea (the blockchain mail delivery didn't pan out), or just a stupid way to earn your pals some taxpayer money.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

            "earn your pals some taxpayer money" - Royal Mail is privately owned these days so it's shareholders money that'll be used/at risk.

      2. Roger Greenwood

        Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

        "I mean, before buying a fleet of those things, preferably."

        Orkney is one of the most monitored places in the UK for windspeeds, having been the trial location for many experimental wind turbines over the last 40 years and more. So yes, hopefully someone had a glance at some records.

        1. heyrick Silver badge
          Happy

          Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

          Easy plan. Drone takes off, let's the wind blow it to the island. Then it lands and waits until the wind is blowing the other way so it can return. If the wind is blowing in neither direction, oh well, better wrap letters in waterproof zip lock baggies.

        2. MachDiamond Silver badge

          Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

          "Orkney is one of the most monitored places in the UK for windspeeds, having been the trial location for many experimental wind turbines over the last 40 years and more. "

          How granular is that data. Every so often at my house I get a big blast of wind/dust devil on an otherwise calm day. On a blustery day, there can be extreme gusts that last several seconds. If the data is averaged or only sampled every 10 minutes, most of those events won't be captured. If I am out flying my drone, those gusts will be a problem. The dust devils I see coming and have never tried to fly near or in one and don't intend to try. A good drone is expensive.

    2. katrinab Silver badge
      Meh

      Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

      Wouldn't a submarine drone be a better option perhaps?

      It wouldn't need to go too deep, maybe about 2-5 metres. Once you get below the level of the surface waves, I think you just have currents to deal with, and they are the same all year round.

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

        katrinab,

        A submarine is just a boat. Unless you build a Bond-villain style underwater entrance into the bottom of a cliff, you've got the same problem of mooring (and getting smashed into the jetty) that you have with any other kind of boat. Plus the waves are still strong for tens of feet down, you've got to get relatively deep to not notice them anymore.

        6kg of payload seems pretty small though. I'm sure you can get aerial drones for ten times that, which aren't too expensive. The Navy have been testing a quarter size helicopter for years that's not too expensive and would seem perfect for this job. They've also been testing drones to move stores between ships for replenishment at sea - which would seem ideal for this sort of work. Of course there is the chance that the Navy are using only the finest gold-plated military contractor spec super-drones. But they have been trying to use off-the-shelf stuff - the mini copter is.

        1. EvilDrSmith Silver badge

          Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

          I saw quite recently the use of a drone for military casualty evacuation.

          I can't find the link now, but I'm pretty sure it was a malloy drone of some make:

          https://www.malloyaeronautics.com/

          So load capacities of ~200kg look to be currently possible.

          I suspect that drones carrying that sort of mass are probably also a bit more stable in relation to gusts of wind than the smaller quad-copters

        2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

          >A submarine is just a boat

          There are some experts in submarine based package delivery in the Gulf of Mexico who manage without fixed port infrastructure - perhaps somebody from the SNP could go on a fact finding tip to Columbia ?

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

          "Unless you build a Bond-villain style underwater entrance into the bottom of a cliff"

          Or unless you build a WASP-style underwater entrance to Stingray's pen (less evil).

          "Stand by for Action!" Dum-de-dum-de-dum-dum "Anything (up to 6 kilos) can be delivered in the next half hour".

      2. Spanners Silver badge
        Pirate

        Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

        In Orkney, there are "tidal races". Basically, you can stand on the shore and watch the sea moving past you like a broad, very fast, river. The only thing I have seen going through it is a car ferry with its engines flat out. Think of the whitewater canoeing you sometimes see on the TV but without so many rocks (when away from the edge).

        My parent's house had stone walls over 1m thick. Newer houses don't but I bet they are fairly well put together all the same.

        A story I am not sure if I got from my father or grandfather is that, after WWII, the Met Office decided to spread weather stations around the UK and decided to put one in the airport near Kirkwall. Then they frequently rejected the figures sent to them. Eventually, to prove a point, someone was sent from London to show people what they were doing wrong because they were reporting higher wind speeds than are actually possible in the UK.

        This person brought new equipment and set it up. They immediately saw wind speeds far higher than could possibly exist in this country! I believe that they now accept the figures. This station will be nice and automated anyway.

    3. Bebu Silver badge
      Big Brother

      Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

      Given the quite short distances (as judged by the article's photograph) I reckon a bit old tech might be just the ticket.

      I recall once seeing a tv series where a bunch of eccentric English chaps were reconstructing ancient weapons and the one that stuck out for me was their ballista. The one they constructed could cast nearly 1000kg (1t) over more than 1000m (1km) and it was a baby. Larger historical ballistae (?) could apparently chuck tons over miles.

      I reckon you could put the mail most most packages in a large heavy spherical capsule and hurl it between islands without regard to the weather. I imagine some sort of soft landing might be contrived with a drogue chute or like. A passenger service could be interesting... hey Elon...:)

      1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

        Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

        ballista

        Or maybe a trebuchet. They seem to be more common than ballistas.

        Larger historical ballistae could apparently chuck tons over miles.

        Not sure I'd want to be anywhere near the landing zone for that, especially in gusty weather.

        I imagine some sort of soft landing might be contrived with a drogue chute or like

        Single use crushable honeycomb cardboard would probably be sufficient. Stick it in the recycling afterwards.

        hey Elon

        NO!

        1. Bebu Silver badge
          Facepalm

          Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

          Yes. I was actually thinking of a trebuchet - fearsome beasties.

          Ballista while smaller aren't too shabby either.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

        Are you sure about those numbers? The general consensus on the Internet is that the biggest-ever historical trebuchet was Warwolf, built for Edward I to use against the Scots. It was supposed to have been able to throw a 300lb missile just over 200yds, and was 400ft tall. Anyone know of a bigger and better one?

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

          Certainly worth building a larger one - just in case those Scots get to be a problem again

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

            " just in case those Scots get to be a problem again"

            What do you mean "get to be a problem" and "again"? The Scots have always been a problem - well at least since the Romans tried to invade them. This will continue until they leave the UK when they can then be a problem to themselves and nobody else.

            1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

              Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

              ? The Scots have always been a problem

              Yes but mostly to other Scots

              If they get independence I suppose we could always build a wall

            2. LybsterRoy Silver badge

              Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

              -- when they can then be a problem to themselves and nobody else. --

              You forget our beloved SNP want to join the EU - not sure if the intention is sabotage or free money.

              1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

                Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

                I thought Orkney wanted to be independent and then join Norway ?

        2. Arthur the cat Silver badge

          Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

          the biggest-ever historical trebuchet

          It would be interesting to see what a trebuchet designed by engineers with modern materials and techniques could do. I know someone has build a supersonic trebuchet. There's also an old Harry Harrison SF novel with, inter alia, a steam powered trebuchet(*).

          (*) I have absolutely no idea whether such a thing is feasible. Is there a hardware engineer in the house?

        3. claimed Silver badge

          Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

          What is up with those units? No idea what any of that means

          How many Olympic sized swimming pools?

      3. LybsterRoy Silver badge

        Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

        Around the islands you may be right but getting stuff to/from the mainland NO!

        My suggestion would be rockets. Light blue touchpaper and run quickly out of the blast zone. AND don't stand where its going to land.

        1. Spanners Silver badge
          Happy

          Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

          but getting stuff to/from the mainland NO!

          In Orkney, the "mainland" is the biggest island - the one Stromness is actually on. From there, the ferry to Scotland takes about two hours. That long with windspeeds gusting up to 190kph is going to be a stretch even for the best drones in the world (Ukrainian ones?).

    4. Mage Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

      I'd imagine most drones are more vulnerable to bad weather than a ferry, especially as the drone operation can't take risks with the mail. Why are they doing this?

      Meanwhile deliveries are terrible in the Western Isles / Harris+Lewis due to lack of staff and poorly maintained vehicle(s).

      1. Graham Cobb Silver badge

        Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

        Although I don't know why, I suspect that drone deliveries may be faster, and you can afford to operate more at the same time. Both would help with the big problem with ferries: it is a lot of boat to move and you need to be sure it can land when it arrives. So you need reasonably big gaps of good weather - drones may be able to work in shorter gaps.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Why are they doing this?

        Publicity. There are hours of airtime and acres of newsprint to fill during the silly season. Any old bollocks helps to fill that much needed gap. And Royal Fail is desperate for anything that might deflect attention from the dismal state of its service and rip-off prices.

      3. R Soul Silver badge

        Why are they doing this?

        Meanwhile deliveries are terrible in the Western Isles / Harris+Lewis due to lack of staff and poorly maintained vehicle(s).

        Shhhh! Don't pay attention to that! Look at the nice new shiny in Orkney! It's got PR people, marketroids and everything - except posties.

    5. G.Y.

      risks Re: Yeah, bad weather is a problem

      losing a drone is not as bad as wrecking a ferry (with people on it). A bigger risk %age can be taken

      1. DS999 Silver badge

        Re: risks Yeah, bad weather is a problem

        Sure deaths are avoided but you feel that package is time critical you might prefer they wait a few days for better weather than have it end up on the bottom of the sea!

  2. Missing Semicolon Silver badge

    Floating drone

    When it comes down, would there be any way to recover it?

    1. Bebu Silver badge
      Windows

      Re: Floating drone

      "When it comes down, would there be any way to recover it?"

      Like the several hundred that plummeted into the Yarra River just before their appearance in the pre-game light show for the WWC AU v FR game?

      https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-07-16/hundreds-of-drones-plunge-into-yarra-river/102607576

      https://mediacore-live-production.akamaized.net/video/01/ka/Z/a7.mp4

      Love to know what caused that?

      1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge
        Black Helicopters

        Re: Love to know what caused that?

        My vote is for a wideband signal jammer. You can't have the game broadcast ad free when the networks have laid out "loadasmoney' for the rights to sling ads at the viewer every time that there is the slightest halt to play now can you?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Floating drone

        Perhaps somebody mixed up a spherical coordinate system with a cartesian one for the drones position, and centred it on Greenwich...? :-)

        1. Bebu Silver badge
          Holmes

          Re: Floating drone

          "mixed up a spherical coordinate system with a cartesian"

          Yep. Cockup over conspiracy any day :)

          I was wondering how each drone determines its position - I wouldn't have thought GPS would be accurate enough or that differential GPS would work that far above the ground.

          Possibly each drone determines and maintains its position relative to its immediate neighbours or at least some local (to the drone flotilla) location mechanism.

          1. TRT Silver badge

            Re: Floating drone

            Except if someone programmes in a Kolvoord Starburst...

            1. Kevin Johnston

              Re: Floating drone

              Or a Death Blossom

  3. Fred Dibnah

    I call greenwashing on this.

    "Using a fully electric drone supports Royal Mail's continued drive to reduce emissions associated with our operations, whilst connecting the island communities we deliver to."

    "By leveraging drone technology, we are revolutionising mail services in remote communities, providing more efficient and timely delivery, and helping to reduce the requirement for emissions-producing vehicles."

    So instead of piggybacking onto the existing ferry services which will continue to run, they are setting up a completely separate means of transporting letters and parcels. This isn't about "reducing emissions", it's about money.

    1. Sub 20 Pilot

      The marketing wankspeak in those two sentences is atrocious. Why does the mainstream media allow these fuckers to spout this meaningless crap for everything instead of calling them to task for it. A pile of words that mean fuck all in the real world and the media allows them to get away with it as a free advert.

  4. Steve Graham

    The Hebrides have tried rocket mail. In 1934, two solid-fuel rockets packed with letters exploded in the sky over Harris & Scarp.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocket_mail

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      I understand a Dr Brown tried a similar system for delivering express mail to London a decade later but it met with some customer resistance

      1. Jess--

        To be fair the only message being sent by them was "BOOM"

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          But you definitely knew it had been delivered

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        I believe that the return rate was overwhelming.

  5. DS999 Silver badge

    How far apart are we talking, and how high are the highest points?

    Perhaps a cable strung between the islands might work better than trying to fly drones in weather so bad that ferries can't operate?

  6. MachDiamond Silver badge

    Delays, always delays

    I get so little in the way of mail these days that I go most of a week without checking my box at the post office and don't worry about it. How disconnected are the Orkney's that it's worth the expense to make sure the mail goes through on a daily basis? I say that if you want to live on the edges, you need to accept that it's not going to be as convenient as living in a town or village. You will get mail, just not daily. I don't see how a drone service would be able to take many packages which can make up the vast majority of postal deliveries these days.

  7. G R Goslin

    Yet another unrralistic/impractical/expensive/unreliable/pointless exercise

    Why, oh why do the authorities continue to spend money on these pointless exercises. Any mail delivery has to be able to handle all and every package that the ordinary mail will deliver, or it's failing in it's statutory duty. Frequent no-go conditions, by reason of weight size, weather, etc,etc should have killed this ridiculous enterprise within minutes of some bright spark saying, "Hi, I've got this really good idea."

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Yet another unrralistic/impractical/expensive/unreliable/pointless exercise

      I believe that the statutory duty only applies to letters (not parcels), that means they have a limit of 0.75kg per parcel and a max size of 35 x 25 x 2.5 CM based on the max weight / dimensions for Large Letter.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Other stories you might like