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With all the supply chain congestion and ongoing disruptions, wouldn’t it be nice to let technology do some of the heavy lifting in the skies above? According to a recent report from the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and Avascent, that type of scenario may arrive sooner than we think.

Their report, Continuing to Think Bigger: Autonomous Aircraft and the Transformation in Aviation, “explores the next chapter of aviation and its potential to transform daily life while expanding America’s longstanding leadership in global aviation.”

In the report, AIA and Avascent predict “breakthrough growth” for the autonomous aircraft market over the next two decades: “Across passenger, cargo, and industrial use cases the market is expected to total about $325 billion from 2022 to 2040, and expand at a nearly 25 percent compound annual growth rate.”

The First “Think Bigger” Report

In 2018, AIA and Avascent released their first “Think Bigger” report, Think Bigger: Large Unmanned Systems and the Next Major Shift in Aviation, which predicted that “In the not-too-distant future, large unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—those flying above 400 feet and weighing more than 55 pounds—will begin populating the skies: transporting cargo, fighting fires, delivering WiFi and even flying people around the world.”

As a first look at “the large UAS market in the United States,” the 2018 report highlighted “a potential $30 billion annual market and more than 60,000 jobs in support of the industry” and described a vision for the future: “The impact of large UAS on Americans and our economy will impact us in many ways they see, and many other ways they don’t. Sooner than many people think, a significant portion of American commercial travel will be via autonomous aircraft. Long-haul cargo will drastically change, with new economic centers rising in places in our country where they don’t exist today. Airports and other intermodal transportation centers will need to be designed and redesigned to meet vastly different needs and experiences.”

In a statement announcing the 2018 report, AIA President and CEO Eric Fanning described some of the challenges at that time: “The biggest barrier to growth is the regulatory framework. Global competitors are working to seize the market from the United States, the country that invented this technology. These are American jobs and American opportunities. But we must start now on certification standards, exports and spectrum to ensure they stay American.”

Continuing to Think Bigger

Since their 2018 predictions, AIA and Avascent said in their most recent report that autonomous aircraft investments have “skyrocketed.”

“Dozens of startup companies have received significant funding for autonomous aircraft and closely related technologies and longstanding aviation companies are investing in the promise of this area,” according to the press release. “The latest report finds that autonomous aircraft are projected to directly lead to nearly 100,000 jobs by 2040, highlighting there is nothing truly ‘unmanned’ about them.”

In the statement, AIA’s Fanning commented on the new findings: “Autonomous aviation has the potential to change life as we know it. From extinguishing forest fires, creating innovative new agriculture applications, or even providing telecom hot spots after a natural disaster, the possibilities are endless. Government and industry must come together to realize the potential of the autonomous aviation market, unite behind a central plan to make it a reality, and use this opportunity to preserve U.S. leadership in aviation.”

“Avascent is honored to work alongside AIA and explore the myriad of new economic opportunities emerging in the large autonomous aircraft arena. As autonomous aircraft capabilities advance, now is an ideal time for industry and government to continue to lay the foundation for growth,” said Josh Pavluk, Senior Director at Avascent.

Report Highlights

There are many factors currently playing a role in the rapid growth of the market, as well as future dynamics expected to have a major impact. Here are a few of the related highlights from the most recent report:

  • “From rising air cargo demand to labor dynamics, macro trends firmly underscore the imperative for autonomous aircraft. The COVID-19 pandemic – with its impact on mobility and e-commerce – has reinforced broader trends already set in motion.”

  • “Thanks in part to growing e-commerce demand, cargo use cases will expand at a significant rate and offer substantial expansion potential.”

  • “Passenger aircraft bring strong long-term growth opportunity but will lag other use cases, most likely not arriving at scale until at least well into the next decade after others are more widely adopted.”

  • “Investors have committed to the promise of this technology, underscoring the importance of steadfast private sector support.”

  • “The U.S. government has taken important steps – such as remote ID, operations over people, and the FAA’s establishment of the Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight Operations Aviation Rulemaking Committee (BVLOS ARC) – to ensure safety and progress.”

Noting that autonomy is “…not a binary on/off switch, but rather it is a capability trade space in which aircraft operate at the intersection of human and machine control,” the report describes a continuum of present and future aircraft.

“On one end of this spectrum are the automated aircraft of today. These aircraft independently execute important yet relatively mundane functions, while onboard pilots ultimately maintain control of crucial decisions. On the other end of the trade space are theoretical aircraft that may not arrive for many decades but independently make most – if not all – critical decisions. Within this continuum is the zone in which large autonomous aircraft of tomorrow will thrive,” according to the report.

On this continuum, the “autonomy trade space” from 2021 to 2040 and beyond is described as follows.

Current: Automation – Augmented Human Control


  • “Perform relatively mundane functions independent of humans”


  • “Always on aircraft to perform critical functions and make important decisions”

Near-Term – Advanced Automation and Human Supervised Autonomy


  • “Operate with human supervision, but can make some critical decisions independently”


  • “Remotely operate an aircraft, with control over all onboard functions”

  • “Remain on aircraft, depending on use case”

Distant Future – Fully Autonomous Aircraft Make Critical Decisions


  • “Independently make critical decisions”


  • “Remotely operate an aircraft”

  • “Remotely manage multiple aircraft”

  • “Remain on aircraft, depending on use case”

The report notes that “recent technology advances in areas such as detect and avoid sensors, secure data links, and computing power are driving the shift to increasing autonomy. As technologies such as onboard processing and artificial intelligence progress, the autonomous functions of aircraft will further expand.”

There are many entities in both the private and public sectors heavily involved in the development of autonomous aviation solutions—such as Xwing—which is highlighted in this January 2021 video from Aviation International News: How Autonomous Flight Could Soon Revolutionize Air Cargo Services—FutureFlight.

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