Drone roadmap sees flying wing, eco-freighters from 2035


Concepts for flying wing freighters, vertical take-off vehicles for short distance freight, and propeller driven eco-airliners for regional routes, are the outcome of a European study, finished earlier this year, and presented at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London on 10 June.

The study, called Air cargo technology road map (Cargomap), found that no pilots meant the aircraft could have simpler unpressurised structures, making them cheaper, and that for regional and short distance transport, 90 per cent of European cities are within 30 kilometres of an airport – enabling cargo services that can meet the higher frequency and time demands expected from customers. In this unpressurised cabin, temperature sensitive products would travel in advanced climate controlled containers. The Cargomap study took a long term view, with a timeframe that stretched from 2035 to 2050. By 2050, the European Union’s Advisory Council for Aviation Research and Innovation in Europe expects that pilotless aircraft will be operating commercially and that the first use will be for air cargo and air taxis. Aerospace consultancy Ad Cuenta was a member of the Cargomap. Its managing director, Adrian De Graaff, tells the audience that, “[the study] is really long term. We came to a few future configurations that might be cost effective. Certain areas in Europe have bad [connectivity], so small aircraft operations could make a good difference.” Concepts presented by De Graaff include, for short distances, a vertical take-off vehicle using ducted fans in its wing; a flying wing for long-haul, which has what is called a blended wing body (BWB) configuration, but with nose loading like a Boeing 747; and for medium distances, a highly efficient pusher propeller powered aircraft with a box wing and a v-tail. De Graaff adds that this  prop driven aircraft could be launched with a maglev system. In a video produced by the study group, an animation of a robot freighter that looks like an Airbus Beluga is shown delivering freight directly to trucks (see picture). For long haul aircraft, the benchmark against which the unmanned freighter concept was compared was the Boeing 777. De Graaff also explained that in the study’s market analysis it found that, with the exception of express services,  airfreight has “suffered dramatically from the economic crisis”. The industry also now has more competition from sea and rail freight and even 3D printing. Another factor that has hurt airfreight, according to De Graaff, is that lower interest rates mean companies do not have  the pressure to sell the products as quickly. They will wait for ocean going vessels to get their products to market. Other challenges the study identified are well known to the industry, including the ongoing over capacity; the increase of belly cargo’s share of the market from its long standing 40 per cent; and the drawbacks to using passenger aircraft because of their need to use hub airports, the locations of which may not suit a cargo’s final destination.Despite all these challenges, and the fact that new freighter aircraft until 2032 will be a small fraction of the production Boeing and Airbus predict, the study identified the above concepts as being “radical solutions,” according to De Graaff. The regional concept of a propeller powered aircraft is conceived to be competitive against even European trucking operations. It has what looks like two wings, one fore and one aft of the fuselage, that are connected to each other at their wing tips, a design called a box wing, and at the back of the aircraft, a v-tail, which is two smaller fins sticking out at an angle, instead of the normal large vertical fin and horizontal stabilisers that create more drag. Another concept identified in the Cargomap’s report is what is called a FanWing (see picture below). Also the subject of a European study, FanWing has a rotor along the wing’s length that draws air over it for lift. Air traffic management could also be automated for drones, according to De Graaff. However, to achieve all these goals the technology development list is long. Aircraft guidance and control hardware and software needs to be more reliable; as do sense and avoid systems that can spot other aircraft and trigger evasive action if a collision or near miss is possible. As these unmanned aircraft will have a datalink with ground stations, their flight computers will need to be hacker proof. De Graaff also calls for a different approach to certification and adds that regulation should be about “competitiveness as well as safety”. He foresaw a need for common global standards that need to be agreed and comments that, “this development will take a long time”. Internet retailer Amazon garnered a lot of media coverage last year for its claims about a possible urban cargo drone. De Graaff’s view of this concept, which uses a small helicopter with four rotors, is: “I do not believe in this urban delivery system proposed by Amazon. They did a good job making people aware this could happen.”The Cargomap report it states that such a small drone could be in operation by 2035. For the short distance, vertical take-off, drone identified by Cargomap, it forsees it entering service from 2035, however it says a helicopter-type aircraft could be in operation by 2020. Separate to Cargomap the US Marine Corps has been operating an unmanned cargo helicopter for troop resupply in Afghanistan for a few years. The long-haul very large aircraft BWB concept would enter service  from 2035 and the medium haul, a similar timeframe. Cargomap maybe the first step in a much more varied world of freighters, simpler in design without pilots and capabilities tailoured to their respective markets.


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