Especially in our sector, we often hear of unmanned aircraft: planes or small aircraft with no human pilot aboard, but remotely controlled or capable of flying autonomously. One of the frontiers of development in this very special market segment – one that promises significant development in the years to come – is proving to be the transport of goods and air logistics, known as UCA (Unmanned Cargo Aircraft).
The subject of drones and unmanned aircraft is something we have already heard of and seen, mainly in research applications, film-making and, obviously, military contexts (where this capacity offers significant tactical advantages). However, it is crystal-clear that in terms of freight transport and global logistics, UCA technology potentially constitutes a massive competitive and productive advantage: reduced operative costs, absence of on-board personnel, optimized aerodynamics (since pressurization is unnecessary), and logistical efficiency facilitated by differentiated cargo size, making small loads viable instead of excessively expensive.
Since September 2015, Avio Aero has been an official member of PUCA (Platform for Unmanned Cargo Aircraft). PUCA is an European working group set up in 2011 in order to promote and facilitate the definition of requirements for, and the development of, unmanned cargo aircraft, encouraging its members to play an active and meaningful role in this sector.
PUCA brings together all the stakeholders and parties interested in creating the conditions, expertise and experience necessary to promote the development of future remotely piloted cargo aircraft. The working group has over 50 members, mostly European, who represent all the potentially interested players, including industry, end users (global transportation carriers), government agencies, universities, research centers and consulting firms. This means, if we widen the horizon, that drones and unmanned aircraft may also prove useful for short-distance transport, for the delivery of goods purchased online by consumers (even from different continents), for humanitarian aid or for missions in the case of environmental or natural disasters.
Initially, PUCA focused on the transport of cargoes up to a maximum of 10 tons, distinguishing between applications for continental transport (as an alternative to, or in synergy with, existing freight methods) and intercontinental deliveries.
35% of global freight travels by air, and is worth roughly 6.4 trillion dollars! At this point, the experts are debating various issues: how big is this type of market, what developments are expected in the near future, who are the players involved, what will the UCA of the future be like, and how many companies are ready to invest in this technology?
The third edition of the UCA International Conference took place on May 26th last year in the Dutch city of Enschede, with the goal of gathering the major players interested (airlines, global logistics companies, global cargo carriers, aircraft manufacturers, airports, R&D companies, military institutions, systems engineers, etc.) and answering these questions regarding the potential of UCAs.
Obviously, Avio Aero was present as a member of PUCA, and was represented by Paolo Salvetti, in charge of the UAV segment of our Sales team, who attended the conference as a speaker with a speech titled: The Propulsion System powering the future Unmanned Cargo Aircraft: conventional vs. breakthrough.
“If we look at the systems currently in use, the engine represents as little as 2-3% of the overall cost of a medium or large UAV (MALE, UCAV) – Paolo explained in his speech in Enschede – The priorities of airframe manufacturers are focused on other systems, such as for example automatic navigation systems, and systems for communications or mission control. Despite all this, the propulsion system plays a fundamental role not only in guaranteeing flight safety but also for its relevance in the aircrafts’ running costs. And this relevance will be further highlighted in future commercial UAV applications, first and foremost in Unmanned Cargo Aircraft. Here the integrated propulsion and generative system – while tending towards hybrid thermo-electric solutions – must become increasingly reliable and increasingly digital. This will involve multiple automatic monitoring and control systems, plus engine Health Monitoring, with diagnostics and prognostics, to ensure even higher security standards, similar or superior to those of piloted aircraft”.