The unmanned freight operations

Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)


Outlook: Unmanned aircraft are integrated into controlled civil airspace and used as reliable freight transporters.

Requirements: In the middle of the 21st century, air freight will increasingly be handled by unmanned transporters all over the world. This is the forecast of Flightpath 2050. Highly automated flying promises a reduction in costs and an increase in reliability. The way ahead from today’s two-person cockpit to remotely piloted cargo aircraft is mapped out. It leads from the intermediate stages of a one-person cockpit and an optionally piloted vehicle (OPV) to the final stage of a remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS). Unmanned freight operations will spread from niche markets and will gradually explore today’s air transport market. First missions might be conducted in poorly connected areas to provide urgently needed supplies, such as medicines or disaster relief equipment. A further field of use is the extensive exchange of urgently required production parts between industrial sites. Atmospheric researchers also need unmanned aircraft systems, for example, to collect data over long periods of time for climate research at high altitudes. DLR wants to make its contribution to open up the potential of unmanned civil air traffic.

Objective: DLR will demonstrate civil applications involving unmanned aircraft systems. The concept of a remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) is all-inclusive and comprises both the aircraft as well as the infrastructure. The ground station as well as satellite-based data link and positioning play a particularly crucial role in such aircraft systems. DLR intends to draft and develop specific technical and operational solutions in these areas.

Communications and navigation are key technologies for RPAS because the data link connection between the ground station and the aircraft as well as its position data must be particularly robust and reliable. Remotely piloted aircraft systems for use in controlled civil airspace must be capable of communicating with conventional aircraft navigated by pilots for example. Selected technologies need to be tested by using DLR research aircraft.

However, suitable framework conditions for civil applications of RPAS are still lacking. In the future, the legislator needs to establish approval procedures and construction regulations to ensure that newly developed unmanned aircraft systems can be certified and approved. Besides, the integration of RPAS in controlled civil airspace also needs to be regulated. With its expertise, DLR sees itself in the role of an advisor for developing standards.

Unmanned air traffic is expected to increase significantly. Therefore, DLR is pushing the development of new technologies for unmanned aircraft systems and is dedicated to finding answers to unsolved research issues. This also includes the question in which markets RPAS could operate at lower costs than conventional solutions because it will not be possible for legal reasons to dispense with the pilot-in-command on board or on the ground in the medium term. For the time being, it will also be necessary to maintain a technologically sophisticated and costly infrastructure on the ground.

Last modified:
15/11/2017 11:27:45