A recent statement by the National Aeronautical Centre says this: “The operation of unmanned cargo aircraft (UCA) moved closer to reality as delegates from the aerospace and logistics industry met recently to discuss the way forward.”
Where did this come from?
“The unique initiative, organised by the National Aeronautical Centre, West Wales Airport, took place at the Lancaster Hotel in London, in the form of a round-table discussion. It was a world first event and an important step on a road that will lead to unmanned cargo aircraft being used throughout the global logistics chain.”
It’s true that, for years, the industry has been talking about the practicality of freight aircraft being operated pilotlessly, on the grounds that the technology to do it exists, and unlike pilotless passenger airliners, the public wouldn’t care.
This group discussion reportedly included Thales, BAE Systems, Leonardo Finmeccanica, Avio Aero, IATA, Lufthansa, Heathrow cargo “and other airline representation”, and the agenda included “a wide range of potential UCA operations from intercontinental air freighters to local deliveries by small drones.”
Ray Mann, Managing Director of West Wales Airport, said, “The past 20 years has seen the evolution of unmanned aircraft and although initially developed for military operations, they have demonstrated the means of having far greater potential for all sorts of civilian use. As UCA can be constructed in any size and shape depending on the task required, this first round-table discussion has been invaluable for both industries to understand how they can best respond to this growing demand.”
Global Head of Cargo at IATA Glyn Hughes commented that – while it looks like a great opportunity: “For the full economic and social benefits of commercial drone technology to be realized the groundwork needs to be done now to ensure their safe integration with existing air traffic and infrastructure.”
The latter will not be a rapid process.
My personal guess is that, for large freighters, single-pilot operations will precede zero-pilot ops.
That idea could really be very close, because the aircraft can be fitted with a system that enables remote piloting of the aircraft in the event of the onboard pilot becoming incapacitated or needing help.
And as the NAC says: “The initiative is set to continue with further meetings planned in the coming months.”