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The future of large unmanned cargo aircraft (LUCA) in the national airspace system (NAS)
- Mark Patrick Collins

Large unmanned cargo aircraft (LUCA) definition is as follows: unmanned aircraft carrying 100- 25,000 pounds and with a range of 200-10,000 miles

Problems with LUCA in the NAS today:

The main issue with the integration of LUCA in the NAS is the lack of safety regulations by the FAA. The new FAR 14 CFR 107 regulations do not govern UAS larger than 55 lbs. The lack of UAS safety regulations are not keeping pace with technology. How long it will take for the stakeholders, manufactures, and regulators to come together to develop the aircraft and systems that will enable LUCA in the NAS. Public perception is high - A large UAS crashing in a populated area will be unacceptable to the public. Pilots solve problems on every flight that new software communication programs will have to solve. How does the industry remain safe, what roles will state, and local governments play with rulemaking, what roles will private industry take, what are the standards that can be applied internationally?

NASA Role on Integrating large UAS in the NAS

NASA have been working on UAS to NAS integration since 2011. They are developing the technologies that will make it possible for UAS in the NAS. NASA’s Ikhana test drone was the first large UAS to fly in the NAS without the requirement of an escort aircraft outside of Class A and Special Use Airspace. NASA is testing Detect and Avoid (DAA) with large UAS in the NAS. NASA is testing and developing secure transmission of data technologies. NASA is developing Command & Control Technologies. NASA is developing technologies for UAS traffic management (UTM)

Enabling Technologies for LUCA in the NAS

Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) System – Goal is to enable safe, efficient low altitude operation by providing services such as corridors, dynamic geofencing, severe weather and wind avoidance, congestion management, terrain avoidance, route planning, re-routing, separation management, sequencing and spacing. NASA envisions two possible UTM systems – 1. A portable UTM system that could be moved to support precision agriculture, unmanned cargo aircraft operations, and disaster relief. 2. Persistent UTM systems which would support low altitude operations and provide continuous coverage for a geographical area. SWIM – System Wide Information Management – FAA program designed to facilitate greater sharing of ATM information

FAA Outlook for LUCA in the NAS

FAA have Developed the Drone Advisory Council that is helping with the rulemaking. Along with the President of the U.S., the DOT, and the FAA have created a UAS integration program – The purpose of this program is to accelerate the integration of UAS in the NAS. The FAA is seeking partnerships with private industry, states, and local governments to develop unique UAS programs. FAA have created LAANC, standing for Low Altitude Authorization Notification Capability. This is being used now to speed UAS flight authorizations with the busiest airports. NextGen and SWIM – Information based traffic management that will improve situational awareness for all NAS users (pilots, controllers, and dispatchers)

Implications of the Survey Results

Convincing the public that LUCA are safe is one of the largest challenge facing integration.

Most of the participants responded that they were neither likely nor unlikely to add LUCA to their fleet despite LUCA enabling technologies and regulations. The results found that this is because:
1) The regulators are taking a cautious approach to LUCA in the NAS
2) The lack of LUCA manufactures building aircraft and
3) The lack of LUCA operators requesting it.

Recommendation for LUCA Manufactures

LUCA manufactures should focus their development efforts on unmanned cargo aircraft rather than unmanned passenger aircraft. LUCA manufactures develop LUCA for both the civil and military cargo markets. Future LUCA designs on those aircraft that can fly up to 1-10,000 miles with the capability of carrying at least 1.5 tons – 12.5 tons of cargo using short fields or runways.

Recommendation for LUCA operators

The results found that the labor unions would become adversarial and it would cause too much culture change within existing passenger and cargo airlines today. Therefore, to maintain a competitive advantage and avoid labor disputes it is advised that: LUCA operators separate LUCA business from any manned aircraft operation so that to have less labor animosity.

Recommended LUCA Safety Regulations

LUCA operators should be required to have operating certificates to fly in the NAS. LUCA manufactures should be required to have Type Certificates to sell their LUCA. LUCA remote pilots should be aircraft type rated and instrument rated. LUCA should be maintained by FAA certified airframe and powerplant technicians. Safety management systems (SMS) should be required for LUCA operators just as it is with commercial airlines today. These proven processes have shown to decrease accidents, improve safety, and public confidence of manned airplanes so it is therefore crucial for integration of LUCA.

Future Markets for LUCA

1. Military
2. Those markets that limit risk and liability
3. Long Haul point to point cargo service
4. Delivery of goods to remote areas where infrastructure is lacking.
5. Shipping high value cargo long distances where multiple manned crews would normally be necessary.
6. Types of cargo would be perishable items, pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, military supplies, and the rush movement of aircraft parts for AOG’s

Recommendations for Future LUCA Research

Since an unmanned cargo airline has never been done before, it is recommended to perform further research on determining the economic validity of an unmanned cargo airline and what one might look like. This research would include determining target market customers, determining potential aircraft and engine type capabilities, speculating the direct operating cost (fuel, labor and overhead), and possible revenue for an unmanned cargo airline. This market information would help in proving such a concept and in determining stakeholder investment. The same recommendation for research would be made for developing an ideal LUCA manufacture. Also, how to train the next generation LUCA remote pilots and mechanics to provide recommendation for school curriculum development and human to computer interfaces.


Based on the literature review, results of a survey we conducted, and correspondence with experts in the industry it is speculated that LUCA will be able to access the NAS on a routine basis for commercial operations by 2020 starting in unpopulated areas. It should take approximately 2-3 years for a safety record to be established after which time LUCA should able to access all sectors of the NAS. The new technology systems and future safety regulations will enable LUCA in the NAS to start an economic revolution in commercial aviation industry, likes of which the industry has not seen since that of the jet age and the time of the Wright Brothers. This will be just as significant as the railroads were in allowing people and cargo to move across the continental U.S. for the first time

Mark Patrick

About the founder of LUCA Air and author

It is the goal of Mark Patrick Collins founder of LUCA Air to partner with the FAA and industry to develop the infrastructure, technical know-how, and establish the customer base to operate large unmanned cargo airline in the National Airspace System (NAS). Interested parties please contact markpatrickcollins@me.com.

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