Factsheet 3: European initiatives to foster the development of unmanned cargo aircraft

Benefits and challenges of operating unmanned cargo aircraft
The Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda for European aeronautics and air transport as published by the Advisory Council for Aviation Research and innovation in Europe (ACARE) that is jointly chaired by the European Commission and the aviation community, assumes that cargo aircraft will be the first application of unmanned aerial transport systems in the civil domain. Already small unmanned systems exist that are used for remote sensing tasks. It is envisaged that these and bigger unmanned systems will be used as cargo aircraft in the future.
This fact sheet concerns unmanned cargo aircraft (UCA) for the medium-term future that have a payload of 2 to 20 tonnes and a range of 1000-10,000 km. UCA can be operated out of regional airports.

In order to ensure that these aircraft can operate in a safe and cost effective way, further research and technology development, including demonstration flights, are needed to ensure that the technology is mature and reliable. The best concepts for these new aircraft need to be chosen and certification needs to be ensured.
In the past the European Commission has funded research on unmanned aerial systems stimulating competent European organisations to work together. The research was focused on safe operation, guidance and control (including unmanned aircraft piloted from the ground and fully autonomous aircraft) and market prospects.

In order to fully develop the concept of unmanned cargo aircraft for the future, additional research and technology development is needed. The new Horizon 2020 program of the European Commission is the ideal vehicle to stimulate research and technology development at a European level.

Topics that could be addressed include:

  • The safe operation of the aircraft, including the autonomous flight and automated sense and avoid systems, so as to avoid collisions in the air and on the ground
  • New aircraft configurations for different types of cargo aircraft
  • Advanced structures, propulsion systems and equipment that would enable these aircraft to be developed and operated
  • Advanced maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) capabilities to service the aircraft in a cost effective way
  • Green operations to reduce the impact of aviation on the environment
  • Business models for operations of unmanned aircraft in view of the low cost requirements, the time to delivery target (no more than 4 hours door to door within Europe) and the frequencies of service required
  • The new certification rules and airspace regulations that need to developed for the use of unmanned vehicles in civil airspace
  • Measures to promote the use of unmanned cargo aircraft and ensuring public confidence in such systems
  • Airport infrastructures and logistic concepts that allow the use of unmanned aircraft in different parts of Europe

Future research
Future research in Europe for unmanned cargo aircraft should take into account the work that already has been done, both in the civil and military domain. Europe has the competence to develop a range of novel cargo aircraft that would be leading the world. The Horizon 2020 research and innovation program of the European Commission provides the ideal vehicle to encourage competent organisations to work together. New technologies needed can be developed in this research program. The safety and reliability of future aircraft systems could be demonstrated in the Clean Sky program that is supported by the Commission. In the European Commission’s SESAR program on future European Air Traffic Management (ATM) the incorporation of unmanned aerial systems in European airspace can be demonstrated as well. UCA are expected to comply with the SESAR concept of operations.

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