Airlines get ready to embrace unmanned aviation

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs), also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones will soon take a big chunk of the skies in a variety of applications including the delivery of goods, disaster recovery efforts, in airport management, even passenger transport.

IATA is getting ready for the near-term and long-term prospects of integrating drones into the airspace and into airline operations.

Speaking at IATA’s headquarters in Geneva, Celine Hourcade, head of cargo transformation and Rob Eagles, director of ATM infrastructure, shared perspectives on how the rise of drones and unmanned aircraft will impact the airline business.

Hourcade explains that IATA is looking at the whole range of unmanned aircraft applications:

“We have the very small ones, recreational drones used for small partial delivery. The specialized ones have sometimes the same design, or are specialized with parachuting for air drops, or catapulted instead of taking off, or landing vertically. Then we have the drones for long range and large payload, from 100-500 kg to two to ten tons of freight.

“We have one manufacturer looking at a drone that can carry up to 100 tons of freight. There can be new vehicles, designed with new usage in mind, or could include the conversion of existing manned aircraft into unmanned aircraft.”

“Drones can work for airport operations. There are great opportunities increase and improve safety, reduce the time spent on the ground for aircraft, and to save costs—the use of drones in airport surveillance, for instance. Also, the monitoring of the perimeter of the airport, the inspection of the runway and bird and wildlife control.”

For the birds

Bird strikes do considerable damage to aircraft and can result in serious accidents. As the FAA wrote in its detailed report on bird strike management:

“Bird strikes are a serious aviation safety issue as demonstrated in recent years by the emergency forced landing of an Airbus 320 with 159 passengers and crew in the Hudson River in January 2009 after Canada geese were ingested in both engines and the 19-fatality crash of a Dornier 228-200 in Nepal in September 2012 after a black kite was struck on take-off. Globally, bird and other wildlife strikes killed more than 262 people and destroyed over 247 aircraft from 1988 – September 2016.”

Drones designed to look like birds of prey are being deployed to clear the skies around the airport making them safe for aircraft.

Clear Flight’s Robird and Integrated Drone Solutions were deployed at Edmonton International Airport this year as part of the airport’s Wildlife Management Plan.

Better ops

Other practical uses of drones include automated inventory management for airlines and aircraft inspection.

EasyJet led the way in 2014 by using drones for aircraft inspections and other airlines have also conducted drone trials for these applications, assisted by SITA Labs. Hourcade predicts that operational applications will become more common.

“It’s an opportunity to make aircraft administration faster, share information with all the maintenance companies and really an opportunity to make the whole process more efficient and digital, and because it’s faster it’s, in the end, more affordable.”

But the label of drones, as unmanned aircraft, also applies to larger planes, and IATA is looking at what that means for passenger transportation going forward. Hourcade says:

“We have interim projects to use unmanned aircraft in urban spaces for urban mobility. We can also see traditional passenger aircraft could become unmanned in the longer term future.”

“The IATA Board of Governors asked us to look at the opportunities to address all of the potential concerns, and to get to the possibilities of this new branch of aviation. The core business of IATA is to develop standards, it’s to ensure safety, it’s to work with regulators and listen to the industry. This is the work we are doing on unmanned aviation.”

Managing the airspace

A hurdle ahead for a manned and unmanned air transport system will be managing congestion to air traffic management. IATA’s Rob Eagles shared plans underway at IATA to work with technology providers, governments and regulators to ensure that there is room for all.

Eagles says he also sees potential crossover in technology that could improve air traffic management for manned aircraft:

“We need to ensure that the operation of UAS drones does not have a negative impact on capacity or efficiency by requiring appropriate rules and regulations to be developed and put in place, including for international operations.”

“UAS traffic management (UTM) will positively influence ATM today, with transferable technology. For example, new detection avoidance systems developed with artificial intelligence, new transferable CONOPS (concept of operation), new aircraft to aircraft communications, new aircraft separation standards, new roles and responsibilities.”

“The different worlds will meet and the both the ATM and UTM can win. The significant financial investment that is being brought to bear in this new area, and the future procedures of air traffic control, will be a driving factor in how UTM and ATM evolve. New business models are already being proposed or implemented.”

For example, NASA is working to develop advanced ATM and UTM systems integration which may ultimately help Uber deploy its planned air taxi systems in future.

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