Quiet harbingers of momentous changes – Interview with Hans Heerkens, Chairman Platform UCA (PUCA)
Hans Heerkens is a speaker at the Unmanned Cargo Aircraft Conference, on November 23, 2017, at Avio Aero, Rivalta di Torino, Italy.
Far from the spotlight of the media, technologies are developed that can significantly change aviation – and society- especially when applied jointly. Two of them are 3D printing and quantum computers. Perhaps you do not think of aviation right away. But these technologies can profoundly change aviation, and may have a major impact on tomorrow’s world.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a technique by which an object is constructed in thin layers, as if a printer does not apply one layer of ink to paper, but layer after layer. The significant advantage is that more and more items can be manufactured wherever and whenever they are needed. This saves time and transport costs. Experiments are already conducted with 3D printing of food. In combination with nanotechnology, which can change properties of materials considerably, the possibilities seem unlimited.
From anywhere to everywhere
For the time being, airlines need not be afraid that the goods they are transporting will be printed where they are required, without need for transport. On the contrary; 3D printing can offer new opportunities for air freight operators. So far, only relatively simple items can be printed. Furthermore, 3D printing can be quite costly and of course requires raw materials. Companies are likely to be less bound to fixed production sites in the future, as the complex supply of raw materials and semi-finished products is made partially unnecessary by 3D printing technology. Manufacturers can more than is possible at present locate in places where there are sufficiently skilled staff, where energy is available, where tax rates are beneficial. This may mean – looking ahead in the future – that production facilities can be far more spread geographically and are less than at present bound to expensive industrial or metropolitan areas. And this in turn means that products that cannot be printed locally or only at high costs have to be sourced elsewhere. These are exactly the products that are suitable for air transport; a high value per unit of weight, perhaps perishable or fragile, and often required on short notice. Think of complicated spare parts of production equipment or refineries. Every hour a production line or oil refinery is offline costs great sums of money. If future 3D printing is used for large-scale production, it is likely that this will concern goods that are currently being transported by means of transport other than aircraft, due to their volume or specific weight.
Small volumes, large numbers
If the above scenario becomes reality, it means that smaller volumes need to be transported to a larger number of locations. Currently, air freight is mainly transported in two ways: by cargo planes or in the bellies of passenger aircraft. In both cases, relatively large volumes must be transported per flight to make this activity profitable for airlines. If smaller volumes are to be transported in the future, required to be delivered to a greater variety of, perhaps relatively remote, locations, Unmanned Cargo Aircraft or UCA seem a good alternative. UCA are expected to be especially efficient when transporting small loads over long distances, are not bound by pilot scheduling constraints, and can operate from short runways. Such aircraft currently only exist as prototypes, but that will not remain so for long. Various entrepreneurs are already working on developing UCA and making plans for the provision of unmanned cargo transport.
But what do quantum computers have to do with this? Such computers can work much faster than existing computers, maybe thousands of more times faster. They do not perform calculations one after the other, but largely simultaneously (parallel). We do not yet know how fast they are, because there are no practical quantum computers yet. But if, in the future, large numbers of smaller carriers share airspace, not only in remote areas but also in big cities, if these planes operate not only from airports but also from industrial sites and roofs of railway stations, then the work of air traffic controllers will become infinitely more complicated. So complicated that only very powerful computers can monitor airspace, approve submitted flight plans quickly and provide solutions to air traffic controllers when two or more aircraft get too close to each other. And all transported cargo must also be tracked, assigned to aircraft, monitored and guarded. Weather forecasts should become more accurate to prevent delays for the relatively slow-flying cargo planes. Quantum computers – if they can be made to operate reliably and user-friendly – should be able to handle these tasks. If the scenario outlined here becomes reality, the combination of 3D printing and quantum computers can significantly change the way goods are produced and transported. And it offers new opportunities to regions that are not yet connected to the global transport infrastructure.