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.