Until now, the concept of air cargo has been understood as the transfer of goods by air using the different types of aircraft available on the market to transport goods from one point of origin to another destination.
But this vision must now expand and evolve as the imminent entry of UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System), or what we colloquially call drones, into the commercial system becomes a reality.
Leaving aside the use of these systems for weapons and defence purposes, which in itself is a highly specialised world and there is much to analyse, we are interested in the commercial purposes sought by the development of drones and the impact they will have on the future of air cargo.
It is a fact that it is not easy to adapt national and international regulations to the great technological progress that is being experienced, but since 2017 the European Union has already begun to develop the so-called “U-space”, with impact in Spain from 2019 with projects led by ENAIRE, in order to urge a regulatory framework that will allow the management of UAS traffic in an automated and integrated manner with the management of manned aviation. All this to enable operations with unmanned aircraft in an orderly, fluid, safe and affordable manner.
A statement that is easy to make but difficult to execute, given that the “U-space” must be a safe and highly controlled (and certified) space in which the drones themselves, represented by their pilot; the service provider in that space that operates via the pilot; the provider of information services on the aircraft and its safety; the national control authorities; the security forces; and the general public as an interested party and recipient of any type of information will coexist; all of this, in addition to the traditional aviation itself, which we have known up to now as the “U-space”; the national control authorities; law enforcement agencies; and the general public as an interested party and recipient of any type of information; all of this, in addition to traditional passenger and cargo aviation itself, which we have known until now as the only one but which is considered “manned aviation”.
All this requires a “National Action Plan for the Deployment of U-space” (PANDU) in Spain, which is carried out through the coordinated action of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGAC), the State Aviation Safety Agency (AESA) and ENAIRE, in conjunction with the Ministry of Defence. Thus, by the end of 2023 or early 2024, it is expected to have a controlled space in which to operate drones. This is a very important challenge and, without a doubt, unstoppable.
The evolution in the world of transport is constant and, therefore, this new reality should not surprise us, but there are other factors that help and drive these changes, such as the EU’s goal of minimising emissions from all modes of transport (with very demanding challenges for operators) and optimising the performance of equipment and people.
Thus, the use of UAS is seen as an alternative to transporting certain loads with a positive environmental and resource impact.
A mere example of the new reality that is coming, and in which the world of shipping is affected, is the fact of performing the tasks of shipping consignment and provisioning of a vessel through the use of drones. Let’s say that a ship calls at the port of Vigo, which until now has required the assistance of one or two operations staff from the shipping agent contracted to attend to it, in addition to the rest of the suppliers. If the needs for the delivery of documentation or supplies could be met through the use of drones, it would be feasible to save personnel movements (with their components of contamination and use of resources and equipment), and direct contact would not even be necessary in some cases where there might be necessary isolation situations, such as those experienced during COVID.
This is just one example of a reality that will undoubtedly change the way we understand air cargo transport and, in the not-too-distant future, passenger transport. A small change that only heralds the great change that is coming and to which we will have to adapt.