Is there a future for unmanned air cargo operations?

It will not be long until Google cars are driving us to work and we won’t have to get out of our armchairs to answer the door to blustering delivery drivers as drones land on our lawns to drop off the latest order from Amazon, or so the vision goes. Robotics is also finding its way into the logistics and transport industries, writes Damian Brett.
Earlier this year DHL Supply Chain opened a new facility in Singapore featuring 130 robotic shuttles to pick and store products, while Shanghai terminal operator PACTL is experimenting with robotic handling of air cargo shipments and driverless trucks will be tested on the UK’s roads next year.
Various military forces have already hooked onto the idea and deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in surveillance and combat roles.
With all this potential it is surely only a matter of time until UAVs are utilised by the air cargo industry.
To discuss the potential of UAVs, the National Aeronautical Centre — an airport group that tests unmanned systems — held a roundtable discussion in co-operation with Air Cargo News that brought together the airfreight and unmanned industries.
Discussion, as is inevitable with robotics, began by looking at the impact on the work-force; in this case, pilots.
The impact of automation on the work-force is of course a controversial and emotive subject, but participants quickly identified that in the case of air cargo, looking at UAVs from the point of reducing the number of pilots missed the point.
It was pointed out that there was spare capacity in the bellyhold sector and therefore it would be hard for the unmanned industry to offer a more cost-effective solution on intercontinental operations.
Heathrow Airport head of cargo Nick Platts added that unmanned services looking to target this traffic would face the challenge of needing to be extremely cost-effective and be able to offer high frequencies.
Instead, discussions centred on how UAV operations could open up new areas for air cargo and revolutionise supply chains.
Aircraft component manufacturer Avio Aero’s vice president sales advanced systems & UAV Paolo Salvetti suggested that unmanned aircraft could potentially be used to replace road transport, such as when reaching remote locations like mining sites.
“We can think of this as not just competition against belly cargo but mainly to replace traditional ways of moving goods that are today brought in by road or ship,” he said.
Lufthansa Consulting manging director and partner Andreas Jahnke said: “UAVs could be used in regions where the road infrastructure is not there. In India and big parts of Africa, for example.
“When deciding whether to use trucks or UAVs you have to calculate the cost of not just the truck and unmanned aircraft, but what is the cost of the road that needs to be built?”
This view was echoed by IATA head of cargo Glyn Hughes, who suggested the idea of unmanned airships that could offer vertical take-off and landing into remote areas.
“This doesn’t compete with traditional airfreight, it’s a new model and that’s where you want to look at the application of this, where the model doesn’t exist.”
Ray Mann, managing director, West Wales Airport, which is home to unmanned aircraft operations, added that congestion meant there would need to be alternatives to road transport.
The use of UAVs to avoid current safety concerns – such as the transport of Lithium-ion batteries – could also provide an option for unmanned systems.
Platts also suggested that UAVs could offer a mid-point between the high speed of air cargo and slow speed of shipping.
“The other sector where there is gap in the market is that at the moment you have a choice between slow steaming ocean and air cargo, or perhaps in some cases rail,” he said.
“There could be an intermediate point where you have bulk capacity for low value goods but they want them there a little bit more quickly than slow steaming.”
Platform Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (PUCA) chairman Hans Heerkens suggested that distribution networks could become more fragmented in the future and UAVs could be used to transport products to regional airports.
“Belly cargo will continue to play an important role in air cargo because indeed the planes are flying anyway,” he said.
“But I think there will be more and more direct flights to smaller destinations with smaller cargo volumes because it’s cheaper, it’s safer and it can save time.
“That could be where unmanned aircraft enter the fray because you can make relatively small aircraft fly efficiently.”
Platts was less sure that fragmentation of the market would take place as it would require the breakdown of the hub and spoke system that has developed over the last 40 years.
“You’d need to make sure that the ground infrastructure is in place,” he said.
“The delivery companies that have consolidated distribution centres into bigger hubs would have to break down those centres and be at all the smaller airports.”
Heerkens pointed out that there didn’t need to be a single solution and hub and spoke systems could exist alongside an unmanned regional operation.
Discussions also looked at more radical ways that UAVs could be utilised by air cargo.
Mann questioned whether UAVs could allow shippers to become the movers of cargo, setting up their own intercontinental distribution network from production through to the end user.
This would remove the middle man because their expertise would no longer be required.
“The unmanned industry could make everybody movers because it’s completely joined up with air traffic, with loading and handling,” he explained.
Platts suggested that Customs authorities could have some concerns about goods not being moved through established airports as they would not be able to centralise the clearance operation.
In response, Jahnke said that technology existed that would allow tracking of cargo and certification processes could be used to ensure products complied with regulations.
While Platts agreed that it would be technically possible to bypass a centralised Customs operation, he said it would be difficult to convince authorities to agree from a process perspective.
Overall, it was agreed that the current spare bellyhold capacity meant it was unlikely that intercontinental UAV operations would be developed over the short term.
But most participants agreed there could be some opportunities for regional operations to remote locations or areas with poor or congested infrastructure.
The debate next turned to how exactly UAV operations would make it from the discussion table to reality.
BAE Systems head of sales, future programmes and services Martin Rowe-Willcocks said the development of unmanned systems could be a fairly subtle process. The process was likened to the current trend in the automotive industry where cruise control and self-parking car systems are gradually automating road vehicles.
“You could use more automation and technology to increase the flow rates at airports and increase the safety of the system,” he said.
“If you start from there, rather than saying it’s unmanned, then you actually end up with a slightly different conversation.”
Hughes suggested that small and medium companies could be the ones to push the development.
However, Salvetti said the development of UAV operations would require a large company with resources and expertise to push through the regulatory process.
“The amount of effort needed over the last few years to work with regulators is a big burden and a typical small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) would have a shorter lifetime than the amount of time it will take to get there,” agreed Alvin Wilby, vice president of strategy and technical of aerospace firm Thales UK.
Heerkens added that while an SME may develop the airframe, a large company, with the necessary muscle to take on the regulatory challenge, could be involved in making sub systems.
Shippers, such as Amazon or Alibaba, could also be candidates to push UAVs through the regulatory process and invest in their development.
Amazon, for example, is already involved in the development of regulations around parcel delivery drones and has demonstrated its willingness to invest in transport operations with its fleet of 40 freighters.
“As an industry we only go where there is money,” said Michael Rickett, deputy senior vice president Air Systems UK.
“And I think the fragmentation part of this discussion is the real issue because in order to embrace a market that is lots of little bits, it’s a massive undertaking for any one body and we don’t see any value in that.
“I have to say I am quite frightened of the likes of Amazon because they do have the money to invest in huge changes in infrastructure and through that effect massive changes.”
In the end, participants agreed that there were certainly opportunities to create niche unmanned operations. These operations would then provide more information on whether unmanned operations would be financially viable, demonstrate how they will actually work and help ease them through the regulatory process.
From there, who knows what the future will hold for unmanned cargo aircraft.

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