Cape Town - It is foreseeable that unmanned aircraft will be used to transport passengers as well over the long-term, according to Rob Eagles, director of air traffic management infrastructure at the International Air Transport Association (Iata).
To him the question is not "if" anymore, but "when".
"Our goal is to facilitate, this new branch of aviation by developing standards to support safe, efficient, orderly, reliable and sustainable high-frequency drone operations into th airspace system," said Eagles.
"There are now new aviation actors who bring with them new thinking, new technology, new investment and a new way of doing things."
In his view, the growth and scope of so-called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) - in other words drones - operations are exceptional. It can involve from small to large aircraft and from low to high altitudes. The use of new and advanced technology can be implemented for basic as well as complex operations.
According to Céline Hourcade, head of cargo transformation at Iata, drones can certainly be used by the airline industry.
"They are fantastic opportunities to gain efficiencies, reduce costs and increase speed," she explained.
She pointed out that many trials are already being conducted regarding airport operations, surveillance, automated inventory, parcel deliveries and humanitarian support.
"Existing and new aircraft manufacturers are all working on unmanned aircraft projects," said Hourcade.
"Iata, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (Icao) and regulators are looking at ways to integrate this new branch of aviation safely and efficiently."
In her view, business opportunities for the aviation industry exist in three main areas, namely airport and ground operations, transport of goods and transport of passengers.
There are, for instance, already examples of drones being used for e-commerce purposes by companies like Amazon, Alibaba, Walmart, DHL and UPS.
"Larger drones that are under development could unlock communities without a transport infrastructure and could be, along with medium-sized drones, cost-effective alternatives to traditional aircraft," said Hourcade.
"Drones for tomorrow's air cargo will offer new business opportunities for new and existing air cargo players. This is the not-to-be-missed opportunities for our member airlines to capture new markets, open new routes, reduce costs and increase revenues."
As for the use of drones in airport operations, two examples would be for aircraft inspections and for clear flight and bird control solutions.
According to Eagles, Iata is focusing on safety of drones, traffic management regarding drones and the integration process.
"Safety is Iata's number one priority and it is actively engaged on an education and awareness campaign," he said.
"Iata is actively engaged in the development of remote pilot training, licensing and medical requirements to help ensure safety standards in non-segregated airspace are not compromised."
He emphasised that Iata is taking a holistic view on drones in trying to mitigate risks and assist in the use of unmanned technology to assist flight operations.
"(Drones) offer new thinking methodology and opportunities to reshape the future for all airspace users - manned or unmanned. We just need to ensure that it is done safely and efficiently," concluded Eagles.
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