One of the key players in the primary UK programme aimed at enabling the use of UAVs in civil airspace believes that unmanned cargo aircraft will be operating within a decade.
Thales UK aerospace managing director Richard Deakin is confident that the potential savings will drive development of such aircraft, and that regulators will permit their use. His optimism is partly driven by the encouraging progress of the £32 million ($59.7 million) government/industry Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment (ASTRAEA) programme aimed at enabling routine UAV flight in UK civil airspace.
"In 10 years, we will see unmanned cargo aircraft. If...you combine UAVs with, for example, free-flight, then you start to look at significant cost-savings," says Deakin. "I don't think cargo UAVs are too 'pie in the sky'. It might need a dedicated airport. And using satcoms might be an option that you would want to bring in. But in any case, you could tell the UAV to fly to a certain place and land if it loses the link. It can do category IIIC [zero visibility and ceiling] landings."
He suggests that the greater savings available will make long-range services the most attractive, and suggests the Pacific is an area that would be of interest to operators.
Deakin does not think that recent UAV accidents will damage progress towards their wider use, suggesting that the losses have been due more to on-board system failures than to datalink or control issues.
He believes that remote control of larger aircraft - such as Airbus or Boeing types - may in fact be easier to approve because, in those machines, "the integrity of the systems have been proven".
The bigger issue, he says, is the development of the "see and avoid" concept needed to ensure separation from other aircraft.