Will unmanned aircraft be the wave of the future? And, if so, how will it affect the air cargo industry as a whole? Experts speculate that it could be a transformative change, but it’s still unclear whether it would be a net benefit or a net disadvantage.
What Are Drones?
Drones or “unmanned cargo aircraft” (UAC) can be used for both commercial and military operations. In the past, the military has been the primary beneficiary of such technology. But, today, businesses want to use that tech to lower costs and improve service for customers.
Crew considerations don’t need to be taken into account, so these new aircraft can optimize speed for fuel efficiency. Optimal speed would be roughly 450 km/h, meaning a trip from eastern China to Paris will take one day.
This is a lot faster than other transportation options and fast enough for most cargo and customer needs.
The low cruising speed of these aircraft also means that aircraft can be constructed of ultra-lightweight materials, more efficient propeller propulsion systems, and shorter, unpaved, runways.
There is also no need for a pressurized crew cabin unless the cargo requires it. So, the fuselage doesn’t need to be circular to accommodate human passengers. It just needs to accommodate packages, which are mostly square and rectangular in shape.
Also, the design of the aircraft can be made much more efficient.
The cargo area can be relatively small because human beings won’t be riding in it. Packages can be packed inside the wings, and designs may incorporate a Blended Wing Body, which is 15 to 20 percent more aerodynamic than a standard airplane body.
One pilot can control between 10 and 30 UCA, meaning that companies can save on labor costs. And, disaster mitigation protocols can include more aggressive fire suppression systems, like nitrogen sprays which will extinguish any onboard fires should they occur.
While current technology doesn’t allow for heavy cargos, future planes may be able to carry between 2 and 20 tons, and fly between 1,000 and 10,000 km at 450 km/h.
Why Would A Company Use Them?
The main reason a company would use unmanned cargo aircraft is for the cost savings. Companies, like Airport Bearing Company, can make custom parts for these planes, further reducing costs in flight critical components. No crews mean no layover costs and reduced fuel consumption due to the optimization of aircraft design and cargo storage.
The primary target market for these aircraft seems to be niche markets where customers need to ship products to areas where there is little or no consumer demand. Compared to manned aircraft, UAC can’t compete with large commercial operations that can use “tag along” cargo, flying packages on commercial passenger flights in tandem with consumers who are fronting the cost for the delivery, thus lowering shipping costs for customers.
But, some companies need shipping to areas where customers can’t or won’t subsidize the cost of air travel.
And The Case Against
Not everyone thinks using unmanned cargo planes is a good idea. In fact, not all military operations can be carried out in an unmanned fashion, and not all military specialists agree that the majority of activities should use unmanned drones.
More than a decade of combat on noncontiguous battlefields has shown that there are a lot of problems with traditional vehicles. And, the military has, in some ways, defaulted to using unmanned drones in harsh terrains or in situations where the probability of human casualties is too high.
The powerful strikes against Al Qaeda and various Taliban targets in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan are just one example of where the military has successfully used unmanned aircraft to get the job done.
The main argument for the use of UAC is to minimize human casualties and keep as many human soldiers out of harm’s way as possible. However, drones have limitations. First, the lift capacity of a UAC doesn’t match the capacity of manned aircraft. Bigger aircraft tend to be harder to control.
UAC is limited to 60 lbs of cargo. In addition to its size and weight limitations, there is a security risk. Any downed aircraft has to be recovered or destroyed, lest it finds its way into enemy hands.
In the commercial world, this is not as much of a direct or immediate concern, or is it? With commercial vehicles that fly internationally, a single downed commercial aircraft could provide enemies of the U.S., and other western nations, with the technology, to fight on equal footing, eliminating a major advantage of UAC, namely that Western countries possess the superior military technology.
In that sense, commercial operations may become a risk for military operations.
[Fraser Reed is a retired pilot who got a drone for his 70th birthday. When not testing out his new flying technique he enjoys writing about aircraft, past, and present.]