FedEx founder Fred Smith came by the Wired offices yesterday for a chat on a range of things, but I'll focus here on the bit relevant to this site. He says that they'd like to switch their fleet to UAVs as soon as possible but that this will have to wait for the FAA, which has a tough road ahead in figuring out the rules of NAS integration. Unmanned cargo freighters have lots of advantages for FedEx: safer, cheaper, and much larger capacity. The ideal form is the "blended wing" (example shown). That design doesn't make a clear a distinction between wings and body, so almost all the interior of both can be used for cargo. The result is that the price premium for air over sea would fall from 10x to 2X (with all the speed advantages of air).

As he notes, a modern 777 is already capable of being an unmanned vehicle. "They let the pilots touch the controls for about 20 seconds, to advance the throttles, and then the plane takes over," he said, only half-kidding. The truth is that the plane can take off, fly and land itself. Today pilots drive the planes on the ground, but there's no reason why the computer can't do that, too. Sully's a hero, but Smith's perspective is that humans in the cockpit make the airways more dangerous, not less.

Because the FAA rules are not in place, nobody's built that perfect blended wing UAV for FedEx yet. But Smith believes it's only a matter of time. As he notes, the key thing is having NO people on board, not even as backup. A single person in the craft requires a completely different design, along with radically different economics and logistics. The efficiencies come with 100% robotic operation.

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Comment by Gary Mortimer on February 12, 2009 at 1:29pm
Wow lets see if Uncle friends dangerous cargo in the front have the balls to strike!
Comment by Doug H. on February 12, 2009 at 2:33pm
Perhaps fully robotic planes would be able to have their own coastal landing fields far away from populated areas. The general public (or the luddites) may accept this more easily than the idea of automated flights over populated areas. A shore to shore flight over the Pacific ocean would give the North American, South American and Asian countries the benefit of this less expensive air freight.
Comment by Patrick Egan on February 12, 2009 at 3:03pm
He'll have to wait on more than just the FAA
Comment by Paul Mace on February 12, 2009 at 3:09pm
BWBs have eluded commercialization for several reasons, but the biggest is there is no easy way to morph that shape into a product line, the way there is with tube-type aircraft. You can't 'stretch' it with a cylindrical plug and you can't swap out the wing for a different airfoil.
Comment by Ryan on February 12, 2009 at 3:57pm
That's the way of the future boys...sooner or later having a pilot license will just be a hobby! :)
Comment by Patrick Egan on February 12, 2009 at 4:15pm
They'll just switch to UAS pilots license
Comment by Jack Crossfire on February 12, 2009 at 5:07pm
The real killer application is going to be micro UAV couriers. You'll order something from amazon.com & a micro UAV will fly it directly from the warehouse to your door the moment you click "charge me". The skies are going to be full of millions of micro UAV's flying packages to individuals.

Maybe a network of micro UAV's would hand packages off to each other instead of travelling to sorting centers. You'd order from $parkfun & the micro UAV network would move it from Colorado to your door in 3 hours.
Comment by Patrick Egan on February 12, 2009 at 5:10pm
That sounds like the infamous UAV pizza delivery concept.
Comment by Ryan on February 12, 2009 at 5:51pm
Except your orders would never get there because micro UAV's would run into each other and you'll have to go fetch your orders from the trees
Comment by Pier-Luc Caron St-Pierre on February 13, 2009 at 9:49am
The first project of Novariant was to develop autonomous control system for big aircraft. During the certification, the system "missed" the last landing, re-takeoff and re-landed. Because, the system didn't lands on the first try, this system was not approved and now, Novariant develop auto-guided tractor.

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