Last year, Argyll and Bute Council teamed up with Skyports, drone specialists, to trial the use of drones, known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in delivering school meals. The Council is planning to create the UK’s first UAV logistics and training hub at Oban Airport with funding from the local authority’s Rural Growth Deal.

Drones Deploying School Meals

Christine Boyle, senior manager at the Council says, “The pilot project aimed to test the use of drones to reach rural and remote schools that currently rely on traditional methods of transport such as taxis, ferries and vans. The trial was for “proof of concept” to show this was possible. The idea came about as drones had been used for medical supplies during Covid. This cutting-edge trial was developed with the Council’s catering department in what is a UK first.”

For the trial, the school meal was freshly prepared in Park Primary School in Oban and delivered by drone from Oban Airport to Lochnell Primary School, which is 1.5km away. It was macaroni cheese and a yogurt, which were chilled and transported in a small, insulated box and regenerated at Lochnell Primary School. Christine says, “The drone only went a short distance as we had to conform to certain regulations.” The pupils at Lochnell Primary School were over the moon to see a school meal being delivered in this way. “They loved watching the drone land in the field by their school and the catering manager take it into the kitchen. They thought it was the best thing ever!” says Christine.

Argyll and Bute Council, which provides 78 schools with 1.2 million meals a year, has 63 production kitchens and 12 dining centres. At the dining centres, there are no production kitchens on site, so the meals are freshly made at a nearby school, frozen, transported to the dining centre and regenerated on site. “The drone technology will give us the opportunity to deliver meals where there is no provision, help us review our existing delivery options and come up with solutions that are cost-effective and better for the environment. We are still at the start of this journey, and I am sure as we progress, we will have lots of learning to share with colleagues across the industry,” says Christine. Some rural island schools in the region find it difficult to recruit skilled catering staff, “so we hope drone technology may solve the problem as we’ll won’t need as many skilled staff,” she adds.

The Next Stage Of School Meal Delivery

The Council has now embarked on the next phase – how school meals can be transported from one school to another, using the UAV airport hotspot.

“We’re looking at the logistics – what size of drone is needed, what distance can it do, what temperature does the food need to be, the size of box and the frequency of deliveries,” Christine says.

The initiative has won a COSLA 2023 Excellence Award in the service, innovation and improvement category. Christine says, “It was a great achievement for everyone involved. Argyll and Bute is Scotland’s second largest council area with the highest number of inhabited islands. We are committed to making sure our remote and rural communities have access to mainland services and this special project highlights what is possible with our UAV plans.”