Are Cargo Pilots Becoming Obsolete?

This scenario could practically happen in 10 to 15 years if highly ambitious plans for building unmanned cargo aircraft should become reality. Currently, a project group titled ‘Platform for Unmanned Cargo Aircraft’ (PUCA) is pushing things ahead.

Artist image of UCA  /  courtesy PUCA
Artist image of UCA / courtesy PUCA

Members of this group are representatives of well-known organizations such as Airbus, FedEx, KLM, the Dutch Air Force and Army, University scholars from Cranfield, Delft, South Wales and Twente. Together with private investors they aim to introduce a concept about vehicles, resembling aircraft that fly completely autonomously, without pilots.

Ground controllers replace cockpit personnel
The main focus: “Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (UCA) can be both cheaper to operate and more productive than manned cargo aircraft.”
Cheaper because less personnel is required; a single controller on the ground can handle a number of UCA and on long-haul flights there is no need for extra crew. Furthermore, a UCA can be built more cheaply than a manned aircraft because there is no need for life support systems. In addition, the Platform members argue fuel consumption can be reduced by opting for a relatively low cruising speed. Higher productivity is possible, for example, crew flight-time limitations and the need to return crews to their operating base would no longer be necessary. In addition, the cockpit space could be utilized for stowing shipments.
Powerful commercial arguments, indeed!

Ten tons or even less
PUCA supporters favor smaller solutions as far as the size and shape of the flying machines are concerned, avoiding direct competition with existing air transport assets. This is shown in their concept where developing unmanned cargo aircraft capable of carrying ten tons or less is strongly argued. 
According to PUCA, there are two basic fields of application: Continental transports first, for example, where companies in Central and Eastern Europe that are currently constrained by inadequate ground infrastructure, would be able to transport their goods from already existing rather small local airfields to the consumer markets in Western European. The second application mentioned in the concept is the transport of shipments on intercontinental trade routes. Small to mid-sized companies in the Chinese hinterland can sell their products via Internet to customers, for example in Europe or North America and have the goods flown out through local airports by unmanned aircraft.
"There are many remote areas where you can’t transport cargo efficiently, and we think these aircraft would be very effective in serving regions without high volumes of freight or passengers traffic - like Wales, or Eastern Europe," stated PUCA Chairman Hans Heerkens, a scholar at Twente University in The Netherlands.
His argument is strongly supported by Joost van Doesburg, ‎air freight policy manager at the European Shippers’ Council. The manager is quoted as saying: “We strongly believe in the development of drones and unmanned cargo aircraft within the coming 20 years.”

Still a lot of work ahead
The next steps to getting the project off the ground are technical blue prints for constructing a first UCA prototype. Simultaneously, the entire cost structure must be analyzed thoroughly, the funding issue must be solved, operational areas have to be defined and the highly sensitive security question needs to be credibly answered. Also, new loading / unloading as well as handling solutions have to be presented by the PUCA members, taking into considerations the needs of the military, since UCA has been conceived as dual-use project.
Taking all these major open issues into account the Platform member’s assumption seems realistic; that unmanned cargo aircraft will not take off within the next ten years - as an earliest estimate.

Heiner Siegmund  /  Michael Taweel

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