It’s a sad reflection of our times that the most common way for us to hear about drone technology is in relation to warfare. For many people, ‘drones’ are simply remote control weapons, but there are many more positive ways to exploit remote control technology – and we’re likely to see some of them soon.

For example, drone ships are already being pioneered by Rolls-Royce, and the company has predicted that the first could be in commercial use by the end of this decade.

Commercial transport vessels already operate with minimal crews but shipping companies often encounter staffing issues, with only less qualified staff prepared to spend months away home. With drone vessels, ‘virtual captains’ can control the ships without having to leave land. Virtual crews stationed at key points around the globe could be helicoptered to the vessels if they run into problems that can’t be handled by the technology.

Trials are ongoing and if they’re successful, it just brings the future of drone transport one step closer. Research is also underway to investigate the possibility of air cargo drones.

Without the need to consider the length of duty of a crew, drone planes could fly at an optimised speed to save fuel – slower than on standard flights, but still considerably quicker than alternative routes by road or sea. Without the need for a pressurised cabin, drone planes could also be made lighter and simpler than crewed aircraft, perhaps even built more efficiently to fit the shape of the containers they’d be carrying. A group of mostly Europe-based shippers, universities and aircraft manufacturers, working under the name Platform for Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (PUCA), are pushing for the development of the technology, though their plans are likely to be at least 15-20 years in the future.

And while the idea of Google’s driverless cars tends to grab the headlines, vehicle manufacturers are already ploughing ahead with driverless systems for commercial transport purposes, cutting down on costs and potentially also driver error. The Freightliner Inspiration, a modified Daimler 18-wheeler, is currently being trialled in Nevada, USA. The unmanned bit only takes control on the highway, and while its sensors read lane lines and scan the road up to 800 feet ahead for obstacles, the system will alert the driver if it feels there’s something it can’t handle safely, like adverse weather conditions or overtaking.

The world of commercial cargo may not be sexy or inspirational, but it’s where a lot of the major advances in driverless technology are happening right now. Slowly but surely, the drones are coming…

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