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What’s in store for the future of cargo technology?

As the demand for air cargo services continues to rise and the e-commerce sector expands, the race is on to revolutionise cargo technology. Here's a look at how everything from artificial intelligence to drones and blockchain systems are transforming the future of international cargo aviation.

Drones and cargo technology

Unmanned Drone flying towards the setting sun
Unmanned Drone flying towards the setting sun

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones, are likely to make the biggest impact on the cargo industry over the next 20 years. Originally built for military purposes, fixed-wing and rotary drones are often used for surveillance and guiding aerial missiles. Drones can be piloted by remote control or onboard computers and have many advantages for cargo aviation, including:

  • Cost ‒ Cargo drones could reduce staffing costs and there’s no need to spend money on passenger avionics for an unmanned plane.
  • Efficiency ‒ Drones could deliver goods from airport to airport and other destinations with more speed and efficiency than traditional cargo planes.
  • Versatility ‒ As well as delivering to warehouses and customer homes, drones can take off and land in isolated areas that lack infrastructure, meaning they could deliver aid to disaster areas, for instance.

Numerous companies are working on drone aviation technology, but to make an impact in the commercial market the industry needs to develop air traffic management systems. In particular, tracking and collision avoidance technology is essential to the global success of cargo drones. Here's a look at the options currently under development.

  • Amazon Prime Air ‒ This rapid parcel delivery service aims to deliver packages weighing up to 5lbs to the customer in 30 minutes or less using small drones. Amazon is working on designing cutting-edge 'sense and avoid' technology for their air shipping service, as well as liaising with regulators to create an air traffic management system.
  • Sichuan Tengden Technology ‒ Set up by Chinese aerospace technology experts, this Beijing-based company is building a cargo drone that can carry a 20-tonne shipment. The design boasts eight engines and a 41-metre wingspan. Its first flight is estimated to take place in 2020.
  • Boeing ‒ In January 2018, aircraft manufacturer Boeing revealed a prototype of its new cargo drone, which can transport up to 500lbs of freight. The eco-friendly drone is powered by an electric propulsion system and capable of vertical flight. The drone is going through its first series of test flights this year. Boeing has also created the MQ-25 Stingray, an unmanned aerial refuelling drone, for the U.S. Navy.
  • Natilus ‒ This Californian company is developing a 60-metre-long drone with large cargo door that can carry up to 90 tonnes of freight. Powered by turboprop and turbofan engines and able take off and land in water, Natilus predicts the new drone could reduce global air freight costs by 50 percent and improve cross-border e-commerce. A prototype is undergoing FAA-approved tests and Natilus aims to have it flying by 2020.
  • Google X Wing ‒ This autonomous delivery drone can fly up to 400 feet above the ground and is designed for shipping smaller air freight such as food and medical supplies. Google X Wing is also working on an unmanned traffic management and logistics platform so its drones can safely navigate airspace.

Blockchain and cargo aviation

Blockchain technology was first invented to power Bitcoin in 2008, but could also revolutionise the air cargo industry. So how does it work? In simple terms, Blockchain is a continuously-updated database that's accessible to thousands of computers. Think of it as similar to Google Doc, which allows multiple parties to view and edit a document at the same time.

Air freight experts believe Blockchain technology could improve efficiency and transit time, eliminating paperwork and providing more reliable air cargo tracking. Airport ground operations and cargo handling company Swissport is currently working with Blockchain startups Olam and Winding Tree, studying how the technology could speed their cargo transactions, improve security and logistics, and cut costs.

Cargo technology and artificial intelligence

Side profile of a woman’s head with the graphic of planet earth shooting electrical transmissions of artificial intelligence to her brain.
Side profile of a woman’s head with the graphic of planet earth shooting electrical transmissions of artificial intelligence to her brain.

Similarly to drones, artificial intelligence (AI) is expected to play a role in cargo technology innovation as it helps to predict weather patterns, air traffic and future buying habits. Most importantly, AI could replace pilots with computers that are able to fly a plane autonomously. Boeing and Airbus are working on developing a self-flying plane, both for commercial use and to deliver freight shipments. This would be handy for cutting staff costs and addressing the current pilot shortage. Boeing predicts the aviation industry will need 790,000 new pilots by 2037, while Airbus estimates it'll need 450,000 by 2035.

Warehouse technology

Robots, Cloud and IT software are already transforming the way cargo is handled in warehouses. Robots and drones are regularly used to sort, label, identify and transport goods. These machines are also able to deal with fragile, high-value and heavy loads as well as dangerous goods. This technology is already used in the e-commerce industry, such as in Amazon warehouse operations, and is likely to spread to the aviation cargo sector.

Air Charter Service is committed to staying on the cutting edge of air freight cargo technology, wherever it’s headed. We offer a full range of cargo aircraft, from small jets for urgent packages, to large freighters for outsize cargo, as well as an onboard courier service. Find out more about our range of Air Freight & Air Cargo Charter services here.



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