The potential for unmanned aircraft to halt the growth of van traffic on UK roads will be highlighted at a round table event next week.
Proponents claim that existing technology would enable safe operation of pilotless cargo aircraft, including fixed wing designs, whereas driverless road vehicles face major developmental hurdles.
They argue that within a decade unmanned aircraft could be routinely flying from UK distribution centres to regional airfields.
The round table is organised by West Wales Airport, Britain’s only centre for testing unmanned aerial systems in regulated flying conditions.
Managing director Ray Mann told Transport Network: ‘Getting freight off the road will have an impact on the vans. Some of those vans carry small parcels but long haul. If you were to elevate that into the air, more and more [distribution] is going to move in that direction.’
While development of autonomous road vehicles received considerable official attention, Mr Mann said: ‘What governments are missing at the moment is that it will be far easier to succeed with unmanned aircraft. How do you get unmanned vehicles off a motorway onto smaller roads, hitting a roundabout? Every single vehicle would have to be autonomous.
‘In the air, migrating to unmanned is so much easier because a lot of aircraft are [already] running autonomous systems.’
The event, at BAE Systems in Farnborough, will bring together the International Air Transport Association, logistics companies including Lufthansa Cargo, American Airlines and Heathrow airport, and engineering companies such as Thales and Finmeccanica.