Unmanned aircraft are ready for take-off

UCA are already enabling carriers such as Astral Aviation to deliver to destinations unsuitable for conventional cargo planes. Robert Platt reports from the Netherlands.

The technology needed for Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (UCA) to take to the skies already exists, and the air cargo industry should be keeping a close eye on its development.

Companies such as Astral Aviation, based in Kenya, are already planning to operate UCA to transport cargo into remote regions, and this will prove not only the reliability of the new technology, but also other benefits, such as cost savings and increased productivity, according to Dr Hans Heerkens of the University of Twente, the Netherlands.

Verge of a breakthrough

“UCA are ready to take off, but at the moment it seems as though everyone is waiting for everyone else to act. I believe we are on the verge of a breakthrough, and their introduction into the marketplace will happen very soon and very fast,” he said.

UCA will soon enable Astral Aviation to fulfill a demand for cargo transport to destinations where conventional cargo planes are unable to land due to insufficient infrastructure, or where low cargo volumes make it uneconomical to use conventional aircraft.

Astral Aviation is still waiting for clearance from the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority, which is expected to take place “anytime now”, according to Sanjeev Gadhia, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Astral Aviation.

Astral Aviation has created a drones subsidiary, Astral Aerial Solutions.

Astral Aerial Solutions (AES) is a drone operator and service provider based in Kenya and Rwanda. AES is in the process of setting up drone operations to provide various drone services in Africa.

Astral’s cargo drone has a payload capability of up to 2,000 kg, with a 1,200 kilometre range and a flight time of up to 26 hours on surveillance mode. Its smaller drone is capable of eight hours of flight carrying up to 4 g of payload. These drones are used for cargo and relief aid air transport, aerial mapping and photogrammetry, aerial surveillance, security, oil and gas services, agriculture services, and emergency response among other capabilities.

“Astral Aerial believes that in a continent such as Africa, the use of commercial drones will revolutionize the cargo industry by the fact that drones are several times cheaper than manned aircraft and come in all sizes whereby the remote areas will be easily accessible through the air,” added Gadhia.

In Kenya, UCA face less regulations than in other regions, such as Europe and North America, commented Dr Heerkens.

“Regulations are the biggest hurdle in the introduction of UCA, although you see bodies such as the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR), which is working towards harmonizing and modernizing European airspace, willing to help with regulations around them to make their introduction easier.”

Dr Heerkens added: “The introduction of UCA will firstly come as we recognize their necessity, for areas that have demand for cargo but are difficult or uneconomical to reach. Once the aircraft have proven themselves, you will see competitors cropping up in those markets, and this will be implemented in other regions where regulation is more stringent.

“The UCA that are to be introduced in places such as Kenya are relatively simple in terms of their capabilities, but once they are introduced to more heavily regulated markets and more highly populated areas, you will see more sophisticated vehicles take shape, improving efficiency and productivity.

“I believe the next market where we will see UCA introduced is China, where I know of at least one operator who is already making plans for their introduction. Once that has taken place you will see a more general breakthrough.”

Cost savings and increased productivity will be the primary benefits of using UCA, as such aircraft are both less complicated and cheaper to use and do not require cockpit crews.

Dr Heerkens stated: “The day when you can operate as a shipper and not need a pilot is approaching. There will always be a need for a controller to give these aircraft instructions, however the entire flight process is likely to be autonomous.

Unmanned control tower

“Another interesting development in Sweden is the remote tower concept, which is basically an unmanned control tower with cameras and other sensors situated in airfields.

“You would be able to have these towers in airfields or industrial parks, eliminating the need for the infrastructure of an entire airport.

“They also require minimal human intervention, an on-site controller would only need minimal training for managing take-offs and landings, and could even be part time.”

Safety challenge

Dr Heerkens added in terms of safety, every new aircraft had faced this challenge.

“I would even go so far to say we would not be able to prove safety without first having millions of flights. Only then will we be able to truly demonstrate the safety of aircraft.”