Mac cheese: you are clear for take-off

The meal box is stowed aboard the drone ready for its flight from Oban Airport to Lochnell Primary School, containing macaroni cheese prepared earlier in the morning at Park Primary School in Oban. Photograph: Kevin McGlynn.

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Aviation history was made at Oban Airport last Thursday, when a portion of pasta took to the skies.

The North Connel aerodrome cannot boast record breakers like the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903, or the first in-flight meal in 1919, but on Thursday June 16 2022, it did deliver a school meal by drone – a ‘UK first’ according to Argyll and Bute Council.

Within the cargo hold of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), flown remotely by drone specialists Skyports, sat a precious cargo: a single serving of macaroni cheese, freshly prepared at Oban’s Park Primary School, and a pot of strawberry smoothie for dessert.

The drone lifting off from Oban Airport, heading for Lochnell Primary School. Photograph: Kevin McGlynn.

At the landing strip, 1.5km away in Lochnell Primary School, Benderloch, an increasingly hungry child was waiting for their lunch.

Thankfully, despite a drizzle marinade and a few rolls in the gusty Hebridean air, the flight was as smooth as the fruit yoghurt.

Alastair Skitmore retreives the food box, after the drone lands sussessfully in a field adjacent to Lochnell Primary School. Photograph: Kevin McGlynn.

Readers may well wonder why all this was necessary. Argyll and Bute Council is Scotland’s second largest local authority, with 23 inhabited islands, the most of any UK authority.

That counts for a lot of peckish rural children. All P1-P5 pupils are entitled to free school meals, as are all pupils in early years as part of Scotland’s 1140 hours a year of childcare scheme.

While most of the council-run schools have kitchens preparing meals on site, a few rural schools rely on traditional transport including vans, taxis and ferries, which can be affected by the weather.

‘Drones would help the council to deliver meals to all remote and island schools,’ explains the council, ‘reducing current delivery times and costs, and help contingency planning in emergencies. The drones also offer an alternative carbon free mode of transport, as they are fully electric.’

Thursday’s trial of a flying mac cheese and pudding is just one part in an ambitious plan to create a drone hub at Oban Airport, which is operated by Argyll and Bute Council.

The council received £170,000 of UK Government Community Renewal funding to create a detailed planning application with full design and costings in order to bid to the UK Levelling Up Fund. New funding will enable the construction of the hub by March 2025.

Islay councillor Robin Currie, leader of Argyll and Bute Council, said: ‘The possibilities of using UAV’s to improve services to our communities is quite staggering. Argyll and Bute is the perfect location to test the efficiency of drone technology.

‘We have already seen how drones can deliver essential medical supplies to our islands, and now we want to make sure all pupils have access to healthy school meals.

Lochnell Primary School head teacher Louise Chisholm and some of the pupils have a look inside the food box delivered by drone. Photograph: Kevin McGlynn.

‘This is just the start of what is possible using drones as we look to create the UK’s first UAV logistics and training hub at Oban Airport.

‘From maintaining our assets including roads and bridges to inspecting offshore wind farms, developing the use of drones will help develop skills, create jobs and attract further and investment to the area.’

Alex Brown, head of drone deliveries at Skyports, said: ‘While the aircraft has a maximum payload of 3kg – clearly not sufficient for feeding a classroom of hungry students – this is an important stage in the development of deliveries of this type.

‘The knowledge from this early stage of the project will help to pave the way for wider-scale operations.’

Skyports will demonstrate the use of drones at the Oban Airport open day on June 25.