Large unmanned aerial vehicles and the next major shift in aviation


Earlier this month the Aerospace Industries Association of America (AIA), in cooperation with management consulting firm Avascent, published an analysis of the market for large unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), predicting massive growth.

It defines large UAVs as having a take-off weight of 55 pounds or more, up to over 200 000 pounds. In 2028 the large UAV market will be $4 billion, increasing to $30 billion in 2036, shared between cargo, passenger transport, industrial applications like inspection, public safety such as law enforcement, and telecommunication, for example signal relay. For comparison; a report on the unmanned cargo aircraft (UCA) sector of the market, published in 2016 by consultancy firm Visiongain, estimates global spending on UCA alone to be $1.8 billion in 2026.

Up until now, policymakers, regulators and the media have paid little attention to large UAVs. Airspace regulation concepts like U-Space are specifically aimed at small UAVs like the package delivery vehicle that is being developed by Amazon. Recently, the European Defense Agency urged regulators to enable large UAVs like the Predator and Boeing 737-sized Global Hawk to fly in civilian airspace. The AIA report may serve as a wakeup call.

In some respects, the report is rather optimistic. The large role foreseen for passenger transport by UAVs, much larger than that for cargo aircraft, is likely to be possible only if urban mobility UAVs will prosper. Passenger acceptance may be a big stumbling block, as acknowledged in the report, but also the build-up of experience needed to make – and prove – large longer-distance passenger UAVs safe may limit the use of these vehicles until well in the next two decades.

Apart from urban mobility vehicles, no major manufacturer is known to work on actually developing passenger UAVs, although some firms are proposing avionics suitable for single-pilot operation. And the advantages of passenger UAVs, studied in the European IFATS program in the previous decade but not discussed in the report, do not yet seem to offset the short-term uncertainties. It seems prudent to start with small-scale urban mobility services and with unmanned cargo aircraft (UCA), for which the report gives a credible introduction strategy. Starting UCA operations in rural areas where lack of ground infrastructure gives these aircraft an advantage, and where the consequences of accidents are likely to be limited.

Some interesting and astute observations are made in the report. For example: the general public may more easily accept new applications of UAVs, like industrial sector missions such as inspection (yielding benefits not to be had before), than the substitution of manned vehicles by UAVs for existing applications like passenger transport (where the benefits may be perceived as more marginal).

Safety may be enhanced because autonomous flight management systems can accumulate experience gained in millions of manned and unmanned flights – a repository much bigger than crews of manned aircraft can manage. Another observation is that the need for pilots, including UAV controllers, may actually increase. Replacement of manned aircraft by UAVs will be slow, and UAVs will require many pilots.

The report justifiably urges U.S. industry and government to exploit the opportunities of large UAVs. This should serve as a wake-up call for the rest of the world. The two foremost large military UAVs, the Predator and Global Hawk, are produced by US industry. If Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin or Raytheon decides to enter the civil large UAV market, the rest of the world will have a hard time catching up. And watch smaller companies like Natilus, which is working on several flying boat UCA concepts. Small companies often initiate innovations, until being taken over by large firms with the muscle to introduce them into the market on a large scale.

But more is needed. It will not do to develop a large UAV here, build a landing site there. Just like manned aircraft, UAVs need an infrastructure of ATC services, landing sites, training facilities, safety measures etc. This infrastructure has to be regarded at least partly as a public good that individual market parties will not be able or willing to provide at the scale required to maximize the societal benefits of large UAVs. The call in the AIA report for sound policy is entirely appropriate.

Written by Hans Heerkens, chairman of the Platform Unmanned Cargo Aircraft ( and assistant professor at the University of Twente, Netherlands, and published by ADIT – The Bulletin.