A permanent research facility for Unmanned Cargo Aircraft

A permanent research facility for Unmanned Cargo Aircraft

A permanent research facility for Unmanned Cargo Aircraft

Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (UCA) are, in their simplest form, almost identical to manned aircraft, but with the crew taken out and special control equipment put in. But there is much more to them:

  • One controller on the ground can control 10 to 30 UCA. This means huge savings in crew costs (a single manned long-range aircraft may require eight to twelve crews).
  • Duty length of a crew is not an issue, so UCA can have a cruising speed that is optimized to consume as little fuel as possible. The optimal speed will mostly be around 450 km/h, so a trip from eastern China to Paris will take one day. This is much faster than other forms of transport except manned aircraft, and fast enough for most cargo.
  • The low cruising speed allows a light and efficient construction and the use of efficient propeller propulsion. It makes the use of short, unpaved, runways possible.
  • The cargo area can be relatively small because no humans need to be accommodated. This gives the opportunity to use shapes like a Blended Wing Body (BWB) or flying wing, which is 15-20% more aerodynamically efficient than a conventional aircraft shape. Having no pressurized cabin can decrease weight and complexity.
  • There are hardly any crew scheduling problems. This increases flexibility and productivity. Irregular cargo transport can be accommodated relatively easily, and because it is often unnecessary to return to home base, flying back empty after delivering cargo can be more easily avoided.

Opportunities for small and innovative companies

The first generation of unmanned cargo aircraft are at present not built by established manufacturers such as Boeing, but by small, relatively unknown companies like Singular Aircraft. UCA may provide opportunities for small and innovative companies. The airframe can be relatively simple, the challenge being to optimize it for cargo transport (efficient loading, optimal strength and weight distribution, aerodynamic shapes not possible for manned aircraft etc.). There are opportunities for small, specialized companies, with their expertise in materials (composites), sensors, software and systems integration. 

Reducing uncertainty for entrepreneurs

No unmanned cargo aircraft are as yet in operational use, although Astral Aviation in Kenya plans to start the world's first commercial UCA service this year. At present 'everyone is waiting for everybody else'. Airlines won't buy UCA until they are reasonably sure there is a market for unmanned cargo transport. Manufacturers need buyers before they commit to the sizable investments in the development of UCA. It does not help that no government regulations for the certification and operation of UCA (and large civil unmanned aerial vehicles in general) are in place yet.

The Platform Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (PUCA) of the University of Twente aims to stimulate the development of UCA by, amongst other things, conducting research that informs investment and operational decisions of prospective producers and users of UCA. Research covers, for example, business cases for UCA applications like cargo transport between China and Europe, the cost structure of UCA, the way in which UCA can fulfill the needs of shippers, and so on. The ambition is to establish a permanent UCA research facility in co-operation with Space53 and in this way to stimulate companies in the region to engage in the development, production and operation of UCA. This could bring high-quality economic activities to the region. For more information, visit the PUCA website (www.platformuca.org) or contact Dr. Hans Heerkens (+31-53-4893492, j.m.g.heerkens@utwente.nl).

Photo: National Aerospace Center NLR


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