UFO project: Unmanned cargo aircraft soon to be a reality?

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) has investigated ways to integrate unmanned cargo aircraft in conventional air traffic – with surprising results.

Large cargo carriers with no pilot on board could very soon be a reality. In the “Unmanned Freight Operations” project – or “UFO” project for short – the DLR developed special support systems for air traffic controllers and pilots on the ground to use to navigate unmanned freighters through the ever-increasing volume of traffic in the sky. According to the DLR, the three possible deployment scenarios for unmanned freight flights are the transportation of plant cargo between two factories with a Cessna-size aircraft, long-distance transport with a freighter the size of a Boeing 777, and relief aid transport with a fleet of ‘cargo drones’. The latter would work in much the same way as manned missions: Mostly operated by NATO or UNO, the unmanned cargo aircraft would travel fixed routes in a separate air corridor. The advantage? Depending on the size of the aid flotilla, the mission could be operated remotely by just one pilot.

Full control: Pilots could soon be controlling cargo aircraft from ground stations, with screens displaying the flight direction and engine parameters, maps, flight paths, and the surrounding air traffic.

Unmanned long-haul freight flights, however, would need to be integrated in regular flight operations, since compartmentalizing the airspace would restrict conventional air traffic too strongly in the event of an increase in the number of unmanned cargo carriers. Specially trained air traffic controllers could, though, support unmanned cargo carriers not just through short sectors but across longer hauls that cross many airspaces. The DLR also believes that plant cargo transport could be smoothly integrated into conventional air traffic at a lower altitude.

Innovative control and monitoring system developed

For the deployment of pilots on the ground, the researchers tested a new control and monitoring system. This system delivers a wealth of information: altitude, speed, direction, state of the engine and fuel systems, data on air traffic, the ground, weather, and much more. This information, in turn, enables the pilot to monitor the flight route quickly and accurately and to correct any deviations. For air traffic controllers the DLR has upgraded existing support systems to include status displays for the relevant unmanned aircraft’s systems, as well as its speed and flight direction.

The upgraded air traffic controller support system includes an arrival sequence for aircraft at an airport: Each plane is displayed along with its altitude, course, and aircraft type.

Unmanned freighters facilitate longer flights

“The project has shown that unmanned freight flights are generally feasible from a technical and organizational point of view,” says UFO project manager Dr. Annette Temme. Freight drones would bring a whole host of advantages. Currently, often four or more pilots are needed on long-distance flights, with each pilot taking over the controls at regular intervals. With unmanned freight flights, however, just one pilot is needed to operate the flying devices, and they can simply hand over the controls to a colleague at the end of their shift. This facilitates longer flights and a balanced distribution of work. Cockpits and generally also pressurized cabins are no longer required on board – this frees up additional freight space and cuts production and fuel costs, since the aircraft is lighter.

Dr. Temme anticipates unmanned freight flights will be in operation within the next 10 to 15 years. In the meantime, there are still some questions that need answering, such as how to ensure the rapid communication of large data volumes and how the responsibilities that previously lay with the pilot are to be defined. In addition, no registration processes are as yet in place for unmanned aircraft, and there remain too a number of legal and technical obstacles to overcome regarding the operation of unmanned aircraft in airspace and at airports.

Text by Gesine Oltmanns
Photos: DLR