Drone tech is ready, but are we?

Airbus Skyways drone.

SINGAPORE—Alongside announcements of new freighter conversion orders and rumors of aircraft orders, the Singapore Air Show’s approach to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in airfreight service focused on the long-term promise of technology that may take time to pay off, but has the potential to remake the industry once it does – if the industry can overcome a doubtful public and restrictive regulations.

Airbus Helicopters signed an agreement with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to develop its “Skyways” unmanned air system (UAS) back in early 2016, and is holding the first-ever live demonstration of the system (pictured above) at the air show on Feb. 8, demonstrating the Skyways drone as it takes off and lands at a parcel station in an urban environment.

As exciting as the deployment of the system is for Singapore, where it will deliver small parcels across the National University of Singapore’s campus, the capabilities of the drone itself are less important than the conversations Airbus hopes to launch through the project. Drones with last-mile delivery capabilities – and particularly drones like the Skyways drone, that deliver to easily accessible drop points rather than individual homes – require a dense population to justify the typically steep costs from research to deployment.

However, trying to introduce drone operations into densely populated areas is easier said than done, as regulations typically discourage or prohibit aerial vehicle operations in cities, and your average city resident is at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to the idea of most vehicles that operate without a human driver. The introduction of Skyways, according to an Airbus exhibitor, is an important step forward because, through the partnership with CAAS, a drone developer is working with a regulator to resolve the current stalemate and open the possibility to new drone projects, perhaps even on the passenger side.

At the sprawling ST Aerospace booth, exhibitors showed off a concept for something even more elusive – an entire freighter, piloted only by an artificially intelligent computer. In an interview during the air show, ST Aero COO Jeffrey Lam was optimistic about the development of an unmanned freighter within the next five years, but also acknowledged that while the technology for such a freighter is here today, public sentiment is not yet at the same level.

ST Engineering highlights the potential of its unmanned freighter at the Singapore Air Show.

The discussions at the booth were slightly less ambitious, though. The first step towards an unmanned freighter, according to an SF Engineering exhibitor, is the move from two human pilots to one, with the introduction of an A.I. co-pilot that would take over some tasks usually performed by a human, while still allowing human oversight of the piloting process. That step could occur within the next four to five years. However, the limited cost savings of introducing completely unmanned freighters, combined with public queasiness about having a vehicle that large flying overhead without a human pilot, could keep them out of production through as long as 2040, depending on how regulations and sentiment shift in the meantime.

Those interested in learning more about cargo drones and the future of air freight, are invited to join us in Shanghai at the Mandarin Oriental Pudong 23-25 April for Cargo Facts Asia, where a roundtable panel will be dedicated to the topic. To check out this year’s agenda, or to register, visit www.cargofactsasia.com

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