ST Aerospace eyes pilotless cargo planes

The interior of an A330-300P2F that was delivered to DHL Express last year. With more than 400 conversions under its belt, ST Aerospace is one of the world's largest passenger-to-freighter aircraft conversion houses.
The interior of an A330-300P2F that was delivered to DHL Express last year. With more than 400 conversions under its belt, ST Aerospace is one of the world's largest passenger-to-freighter aircraft conversion houses.PHOTO: ST AEROSPACE

In the future, planes that carry only cargo could be flying without pilots.

ST Aerospace, which has been converting passenger planes into freighter aircraft that carry only cargo for about three decades, has started working with its partners on developing unmanned freighters.

"Given an increasing global demand for air freight coupled with a shortage in air crew, we believe that unmanned freighters will provide a viable solution as well as tangible benefits such as lower cost of operation," the firm told The Straits Times.

The work is being done in two phases, a spokesman said.

For a start, the plan is to develop a single-pilot freighter instead of having two pilots in the cockpit.

Support will be provided from the ground by a second pilot who "can potentially be supporting up to 12 single-pilot aircraft simultaneously", he added.

If the pilot in the aircraft is incapacitated for whatever reasons, the ground pilot takes control and performs an emergency landing.

ST Aerospace expects to be able to produce a single-pilot aircraft in about four to five years.

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing is also studying one-pilot operations, saying it is likely to be seen in cargo transport first.

The second phase for ST Aerospace will build upon the technology to add redundancies, as well as sensors and artificial intelligence to achieve full unmanned freighter operation, the spokesman said.

With more than 400 conversions under its belt, ST Aerospace is one of the world's largest passenger-to-freighter aircraft conversion houses.

FedEx, UPS, Japan Airlines and DHL Express are among its clients.

The firm spoke to The Straits Times on the sidelines of Singapore Airshow 2018 where it announced a new conversion contract.

Its German subsidiary Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW) - a joint venture with Airbus - has been selected by Vallair Solutions Sàrl (Vallair) to convert 10 A321-200 passenger aircraft into freighters.

A value for the deal was not revealed.

Typically it takes up to four months for a passenger-to-freighter conversion to be done.

The work includes ripping out the seats, replacing the aircraft doors and strengthening the floor.

The business is a growing one for ST Aerospace, said its president Lim Serh Ghee.

Rapidly growing e-commerce and the demand for express delivery services are helping to drive growth in the demand for air freight, he added.

Mr Lim said: "Given our decades of experience in freighter conversions, we are setting our sight on capturing greater market share, especially with our new conversion programmes for the Airbus 330 and Airbus 320 platforms."

A pioneer in this business, Mr Lim said ST Aerospace is "in a strong position to capture the narrow-body and mid-sized freighter segment in the conversion market".


Karamjit Kaur

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2018, with the headline 'ST Aerospace eyes pilotless cargo planes'. Print Edition | Subscribe