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More than 30 mostly European organisations are pressing for the development of unmanned cargo aircraft (UCA).

Forwarders, shippers, universities and aircraft manufacturers, grouped under the name Platform for UCA (PUCA), are researching technological and regulatory issues and hoping to attract investment.

UCAs are expected to be cheaper and more efficient than piloted aircraft, and PUCA sees commercial possibilities in those with a 10-tonne payload, to cover thin traffic routes.

“We don’t believe there’s a market for big aircraft,” said Hans Heerkens, assistant professor of the University of Twente and chairman of PUCA.

“There are many areas where you can’t transport cargo efficiently, and we think these aircraft would be especially good for areas without high volumes of freight or passengers – like Wales, or Eastern Europe.”

The group’s plans, which could take 15 to 20 years to come to fruition, are backed by the European Shippers’ Council (ESC).

“We believe in the development of drones and bigger unmanned cargo aircraft, not for the next five or 10 years, but definitely over the next 20 years,” said Joost van Doesburg, ESC airfreight policy adviser.

“Unmanned and unpressurised cabins have clear advantages in relation to weight and other technical aspects. And we can create a product that is developed for us, and fulfills our cargo requirements.”

The aircraft need not have a traditionally shaped fuselage, could have a larger loading door in place of a cockpit and could also be designed with shipping containers in mind. Without the need for pressurised cabins, life-saving equipment and with just one ground-based ‘pilot’ controlling the aircraft, operating costs would be considerably lower than for a manned plane.

“The basic technology is there, but we don’t have experience  – and there are safety concerns,” admitted Mr Heerkens.

“I think an airplane without a pilot would be safer, in the end but not in the beginning. There will be accidents and problems, and we will need to experiment a lot.”

One of the challenges will be airspace, and SESAR, the single European sky project, is already considering how it could work. While Airbus, which is also involved in the project, is advocating “sky tunnels” for unmanned aircraft, to ensure they are not in the same space as traditional aircraft, PUCA is calling for a worldwide standard to allow the aircraft to operate and integrate in manned aircraft airspace.

“Cargo needs to go to economic centres, which have dense airspace,” said Mr Heerkens. “These aircraft could even land on roads in industrial parks, but we need regulatory and safety systems which can handle it.”

Mr van Doesburg added: “Rules for landing rights should probably also change for this breakthrough technology.”

PUCA is urging potential operators, shippers, IT companies and logistics companies to get involved in the project.

“Right now, everyone is waiting for everyone else,” said Mr Heerkens. “Shippers and operators are saying ‘show us the aircraft’, manufacturers are saying ‘tell us if you want it, and we’ll build it’, and governments are saying ‘we can look at it if the market asks’.

“I don’t see this as a solution for a regular airline, like British Airways. But FedEx is conducting research into certain aspects, for example taxiing to the hangar. And Airbus has shown interest. There are also a number of armed forces involved. Unmanned aircraft have so many possibilities.”

Mr van Doesburg added: “Other industry associations should also be involved in this innovation. We can now advise and assist this group to understand what we need as an air cargo industry.”

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