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What Impact Will Drones Have On The Future Of Aviation & Flying?

A DJI drone. The United States government is preparing to ban all drones made in China, including those made by DJI, a Chinese company. (Photo: ekai used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Drones have reached the consumer market over the last decade or so, but they’ve actually existed for far longer than this. When most of us hear the term, we think of small drones that hobbyists use to film landscapes or take photos from above.

On the contrary, drones are quite generalised. A “drone” is simply defined as an unmanned aircraft. There are no pilots on board, no crew or passengers. The drone is typically piloted by someone on the ground, with cameras attached to help navigate the flight. It is believed that the first recognised drone was invented way back in 1917, which shows just how long this technology has been around.

Primarily, drone technology was used by armies and government defence agencies as a way of providing aerial coverage without keeping pilots in the air for hours on end. Militaries weaponised drones and used them to commit air strikes as well, though the main use remained the same: to provide coverage from above.

As technology developed and advanced, people realised there was room for this in everyday life. So, we saw the birth of small drones entering the scene. This includes products like the DJI Drone, which gave individuals a tiny aircraft they could launch into the sky. It was capable of soaring to pretty extreme heights and delivered some of the surveillance features we saw in much larger drones.

Nowadays, it feels like everyone you know has a drone, but how far can this technology develop? More specifically, what do drones mean for the future of aviation? If we look at some of the growing tech trends throughout society and apply them to drones, there are definitely a few ways in which the flying sector could be changed forever.

Pilotless Flights

Tiny drones will never carry passengers, but what about larger ones? Some of the drones used by the military are big enough to potentially carry people inside. Is it possible to create a drone that can transport passengers without the need for pilots or a crew?

With the rise in autonomous technology already taking the world by storm – see the influx of car manufacturers trying to create self-driving vehicles – could we see a similar approach in aviation? If so, drones certainly seem like the obvious starting point. The main issue will be trying to develop an aircraft that’s suitable for people while also still being able to be controlled from below. There’s also the problem of visibility and maintaining a connection to the grounded pilot.

In truth, nobody knows for sure if this will happen – and the odds of full commercial flights being made by drones are very slim. But, it could open opportunities for smaller passenger jets that may reduce the cost of private jet flights in the future.

More Affordable Shipping

Companies around the world rely on the aviation industry for shipping. You have logistics companies like DHL who provide aviation services for their clients. This means they load up thousands of packages onto cargo jets before taking off and landing in a different country. It’s an essential service that allows the global e-commerce market to thrive. Consumers can purchase goods from across the world and receive them in just a few days thanks to aviation shipping.

Keeping that in mind, could drones have a positive impact on this part of the industry?

The idea of pilotless commercial flights might seem crazy, but pilotless shipping isn’t that strange. After all, smaller drones are already being used by companies like Amazon to deliver goods across cities. This is a similar concept but on a larger scale. You get bigger drones that are equipped to store cargo and transport it from one destination to another.

Why could this be beneficial? In theory, you could create a much smaller aircraft for transport. Smaller aircraft need less fuel, so each flight would be cheaper – and potentially result in fewer carbon emissions. Similarly, cargo flights currently still need crew aboard. This usually consists of two people in the cockpit with one or two cabin crew to deal with any potential emergencies. These people all cost money to employ, while a drone would be completely manless.

There is of course the worry of drones losing contact with operators on the ground, as expressed when talking about pilotless flights. The difference here – and why it makes this seem more possible – is that no human lives are at risk. Sure, there’s a risk of losing cargo in flight, but that’s nowhere near as substantial or impactful. Drone crashes are also fairly rare, so who’s to say if this would be as big of a problem as suspected?

A British Airways 747-400 lands in Las Vegas (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Medical Aviation Drones

There’s a high possibility that drones allow a new branch in the aviation industry: medical services.

We can theorise about a handful of possibilities here, so let’s start with the simplest and most likely. Medical shipping or supply runs are already being used by military drones while countries like Italy are experimenting with blood transportation. Here, two different types of drones can be used. The smaller ones can help transport things by air across cities or built-up areas, decreasing transportation times in emergencies. Looking at the Italy example, there might be an emergency surgery that needs a blood transfusion and the only available blood type is at another hospital. With drones, blood can be transported quickly to potentially save a life.

Smaller drones have also been used to carry medical supplies to the front line in warzones – and there’s no reason larger drones can’t be equipped to do a similar thing.

Moving on to another possible use for medical aviation drones, what about passenger transportation? In some extreme cases, hospitals have helicopters that are sent out to airlift or pick up patients in serious emergencies. Could drones be used for the same thing? They need to be big enough for medical professionals and the patient to fit inside, but they’re piloted by someone in a different location. It frees up space and could mean an extra pair of hands are there to monitor the patient during transit. Not needing to navigate through traffic can also speed up hospital transfers and save lives.

Aerial Refuelling

The concept of aerial refuelling is an interesting one. It’s widely used in military settings where small jets and planes are refuelled in the air to extend their range. However, we don’t see it in commercial settings at all. In fact, airlines are strictly against the idea of aerial refuelling for a number of reasons.

For one, there’s the worry of bringing two aircraft close to one another when hundreds of passengers are on board. It’s not a huge issue for military aircraft as the planes are usually much smaller and don’t carry anywhere near as many passengers.

Aside from the danger element, there’s the cost of refuelling in the air. Airlines would need to pay for this extra plane, which massively increases the cost of flights for passengers.

So, could drones impact the idea of aerial refuelling for commercial airlines? In theory, you could get much smaller drones that only carry fuel and nothing else. This would make them cheaper, keeping the costs lower. It also deals with the safety issue as there’s a lower risk because you don’t have a massive commercial jet next to another one.

How likely is this to happen? In all honesty, pretty low! It’s more of an interesting theory than anything else. There are other reasons commercial airlines don’t like in-flight refuelling, plenty of which are related to logistics. Some passengers book long-haul flights specifically to get off when the plane stops for refuelling, so they can transfer to another flight or visit the layover location. There’s a worry that – if long-haul flights were completely uninterrupted – fewer people would buy tickets.

Will Drones Have A Positive Impact On Aviation?

After looking through the ideas above, it’s fair to say that drones can have a big impact on aviation. It’s funny how this technology started in the aviation industry and then moved towards a consumer space. Now, because smaller drones are so popular and versatile, we’re starting to see ideas that go back to the main aviation industry.

Overall, the future of drone technology can have a very positive impact on this sector. Most of the ideas revolve around reducing risks, saving money and speeding things up. Does this mean we’ll 100% see some of the ideas listed above? No! Who knows what stands in the way of drone technology and advancing even further? Money is always an issue, but other roadblocks may mean that we’ve hit our limit.

In all honesty, we don’t think this is the case! Modern technology is so brilliant that it seems highly unlikely drones will remain with the same capabilities they have now. Of all the different things in the aviation sector, the development of future drones is easily the most exciting. It definitely all builds towards the final end goal of possibly seeing pilotless flights for the first time.

Editor’s Note: This is a partnered post.

AirlineGeeks.com Staff


  • AirlineGeeks.com Staff

    AirlineGeeks.com was founded in February 2013 as a one-person blog in Washington D.C. Since then, we’ve grown to have 25+ active team members scattered across the globe. We are all here for the same reason: we love deep-diving into the fascinating realm of the airline industry.

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