Move aside self-driving semi trucks. It seems we had just begun the debate about the impact that autonomous big-rigs could have on the industry, when a new innovation is introduced that could have an even bigger impact on supply chain logistics and transportation: self-operating cargo drones.
It’s exactly what it sounds like; unmanned cargo drones are being developed in order to revolutionize the transportation of goods across local, regional, and national distances. As delivery companies are implementing package-carrying drones that bring small purchases right to your doorstep, the natural next step seems to be the movement of shipping containers with more advanced drones. Using hybrid engines, many of these aircraft will incorporate both rotary and fixed wings to take off and land like helicopters, while cruising across the sky like airplanes. And they may not be very far off.
According to a recent Trucks.com article, industry experts predict that short-haul cargo aircraft will be operating in 10 years in low altitude rural areas, with higher long-haul flights to follow a few years after. Investors, as well as major carriers like FedEx and UPS, are already interested in partnering with development companies who are assembling and testing these autonomous vehicles.
While smaller delivery drones have to conform to regulations for operation in densely populated areas, cargo drones will mostly operate across more open rural spaces, giving them a fast-track to operation permission from the FAA, which is still trying to figure out how to allow drones to integrate into national airspace. While some companies would prefer the FAA to speed up their evaluation and decision-making processes, autonomous aircraft still require advancements in communication, avionics, sensors, and cybersecurity before the government or the public will approve of their widespread use.
But wait 20 years, and it may not be uncommon to see shipping containers flying across the sky, transported by self-driving cargo drones. What does this mean for the trucking industry? Similar to how self-driving vehicles are not yet an immediate threat to truckers (which we’ve discussed HERE), it’s worth mentioning that early advancements in cargo drones are still the very first steps in a research and development process that will take many decades to complete. Technology, safety, and public perceptions are all issues that will take years and years to address before broad, national implementation can begin.
On the other hand, we’ve also previously discussed how autonomous big-rigs may be inevitable (you can read that article HERE), and the same could be true regarding cargo drones. The potential financial incentives for shipping companies, from improved safety and less liability to no longer having to find and pay truckers in the midst of an ongoing driver shortage, may be too great for those businesses to ignore.
At the end of the day, technological progress may be slow, but it consistently marches on, dramatically changing industries as it continues. It could very well be that in 50 years, working in transportation no longer includes driving a semi, but instead involves loading up shipping containers for air-transport and maintaining and repairing fleets of cargo drones.
What do you think about the development of autonomous cargo drones? Will self-driving aircraft improve the industry, or are you worried about what the effects may be? Let us know in the comments below!