2015-05 M-assignment Case studies applications unmanned cargo aircraft

Master’s assignment

Unmanned cargo aircraft operations; a case study

Background Information

Unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) are rapidly gaining interest in the civil transport aviation sector. These remotely or autonomously controlled systems are already widely used for military operations. The advantages for civil transport by unmanned cargo aircraft (UCA) as compared to manned aircraft are, for example: a simpler and cheaper airframe, low fuel consumption, and flexibility (no crew scheduling constraints). Moreover, UCA have good potential for environmentally friendly operation. These advantages appear greatest with smaller aircraft; providing an opportunity to use UCA in new markets. But there are challenges. For example, unmanned aircraft are at present not permitted to fly in airspace together with manned aircraft. Also, it is unclear who is responsible in case of accidents, since there is no pilot to be held accountable for the safe operation of an unmanned aircraft.

Despite the potential of UCA, no development program has started yet, apart from small package delivery vehicles (I.e. Amazon) and one-off experimental prototypes. One of the reasons is that the cost and benefits of UCA have not yet been convincingly quantified and that their usefulness has not yet been validated in practice. So there is a chicken-and-egg problem: the potential of UCA will become clear when they are built, but who will build them if their potential is uncertain? This Master's assignment should help to break this deadlock.

The assignment

Define a particular case in which UCA with a payload of 1-15 tons could be used, and assess the competitive strengths and weaknesses of UCA versus other transport modes and versus the alternative of refraining from transporting goods.


In earlier research, the costs and benefits of UCA were assessed. But this was done for UCA compared to large MD-11 aircraft, not other transport modes (Hoeben, 2014) or for UCA in general (Lugtig & Prent, 2012; Prent, 2013). What is needed are detailed examples of how UCA could operate in specific situations, so as to show as concretely as possible the potential of UCA. Possible cases could be either representative (large potential markets for UCA) or atypical (a case that is ideal for UCA operations but which might occur infrequently in practice). Examples of possible cases are:

  • A route between a Western European conglomerate and a large Chinese city hundreds of miles away from an international airport.
  • An intra-African route.
  • A route from Eastern Europe to the U.S.
  • A route between Indonesian islands.
  • A route between the Middle East and Western Europe.


  1. Read the above literature, and other information on UCA, and choose a case that you want to analyze. The coaches have to agree with your choice.
  2. Establish criteria to assess the potential of UCA for this case (performance criteria like cost per ton-mile, but also the factors that determine performance, like type and volume of cargo per flight).
  3. Describe the case in terms of factors relevant for the potential of UCA (like quantity of industrial output, buying power of local actors, need for raw materials etc.).
  4. Define a notional UCA that is optimized for this case. You do not have to actually design the UCA, just describe it in some key figures.
  5. Assess the competitive strengths and weaknesses of this UCA.
  6. Give an estimation of the number of UCA that could realistically be operated in the case as you defined it. You need to assess in global terms whether this number is sufficient to warrant starting the production of the UCA.

Your background

Study: Industrial Engineering, Business Administration, Economics. Affiliation with aviation is necessary (i.e. having attended the Minor Aerospace Engineering of the University of Twente). A combination of analytical prowess and creativity is required, plus the desire to operate in a field where few have gone before.


Duration: 4-9 months
Location: ……
Start date: ASAP


Dr. Hans Heerkens
Faculty BMS
University of Twente
E: j.m.g.heerkens@utwente.nl