Those who can’t wait for self-driving cars can simply fly. From here and now right to the office, airport or train station, or to go skiing in Engadin. With your own drone or by air taxi. But these smart aircraft can be useful in many other ways as well.
Drones can help to save lives, end lives, fight forest fires, protect vineyards from fungal attacks, deliver packages, play games and much, much more – quicker, more accurately and more elegantly than by conventional means. But safer and quieter too? That depends. But the fact is: Next-generation flying is inspiring imagination and opening airspace for research and development. The euphoria has not been slowed by the fact that the development of self-driving cars is not really picking up speed, despite having been announced long ago. Quite the contrary.
The headlines of the past twelve months have announced astounding reports:
Two surfers saved with a drone. Drones provide mobile phone reception in areas affected by hurricanes. Will self-flying air taxis take off soon? Werder Bremen Football Club admits to using drones. Another drone alarm in London.
These reports clearly show: Drones are making waves while offering something for everyone: amazing aerial images for hobby film-makers and the military, information about the practice tactics of the opponent for football clubs, and new business fields and previously unimagined potential for innovation for companies.
Logistics: Airmail redefined
In terms of commercial applications, the logistics and CEP industries (courier, express, parcel) in particular are discovering new opportunities: Delivery drones do not get stuck in traffic, can overcome natural boundaries such as bodies of water or mountains and therefore access hard-to-reach areas. Deutsche Post DHL Group was able to prove this, for example, during their research project Deliver Future for transporting goods by package-copter. The corporation successfully tested the delivery of medication by drone to an island located in Lake Victoria in East Africa. The self-flying DHL package-copter made the 60-kilometer flight distance from the mainland to the island in an average of 40 minutes.
Transporting people: Flying carpets 4.0
Transporting goods is one thing – transporting people another. The dream of flying carpets might just come true in the near future. The Volocopter by the Bruchsal-based company of the same name is benefiting from a strong updraft, at least in terms of PR, since the first successful, unmanned flight took place in Dubai City in September of 2017. Although the Crown Prince of the Emirate pushed the start button, he did exit after press photos were snapped before take-off. Powered by 18 small rotors, the multi-copter is supposed to be able to transport two people in live operation. The vision behind this product: You call a taxi; it comes flying; and since the operation is self-explanatory, at least for digital natives, no pilot is required. The Volocopter is supposed to be “extremely quiet” and “cost-efficient”, enabling “flying for everyone” according to the company’s homepage, with no further details provided.
Air Taxis and Passenger Drones
Besides Volocopter, there are a number of other companies that are in the process of developing air taxis. Lilium is based in Wessling by Munich and was founded by four graduates of the Technical University of Munich in 2015. Their Lilium jet with VTOL technology (vertical take-off and landing) is supposed to have a range of 300 kilometers and top speeds of 300 kilometers per hour. On its homepage, the company has announced for 2025: “You can book a Lilium Jet”.
In China, Ehang is developing the autonomous passenger drone Ehang 184 AAV (Autonomous Aerial Vehicle), which can achieve speeds higher than 100 km/h. Ehang 184 transported a passenger for the first time in February of 2018 – the founder and CEO of the company, Huazhi Hu. Future users will call the single-passenger drone to the landing spot, enter the destination on the display, and take off and land vertically with the help of four double rotors. A two-seater with a max. load of 280 kilograms is in planning.
It remains to be seen whether traffic jams will be a thing of the past and whether street noise will ebb away thanks to air taxis and flight delivery services. In Zurich, the test operation for transporting blood samples between clinic and laboratory had to be suspended after only one day. Local residents had complained about the noise. It is possible that our current problems will only be shifted a few meters higher.
Agriculture: Earthbound high-altitude flights
The report by Bitkom, the German digital association, may come as a bit of a surprise: “Yet again, it is the farmers who are the pioneers of digitization. No other industry uses drones as acutely as the agricultural sector”, explains Bitkom managing director Bern Rohleder in a press release published by the association. There are plenty of fields of application: Drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras can save animals from being killed by mowing, and the view from high up can show the varying colorations of the fields, indicating the right moments for fertilizing, watering and harvesting. The Chinese company DJI, for example, developed the octocopter Agras MG-1 especially for spraying liquid herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer. In addition to the expected benefits such as saving time and volume, precise spray applications and easy operation, this intricate agricultural assistant impresses with its refined construction. After use, it can be easily folded together and transported in the trunk of a car.
The German Aerospace Center (DLR) has been developing an early detection system for fungal infestations of wine grapes: A drone sends a laser containing rays which are harmless to people and animals. But when the rays hit the vines, the affected grapes begin to fluoresce. The Swiss company AgriCircle tested this new technology at the Höcklistein vineyard in Rapperswil at Lake Zurich in 2018. The hexacopter Aibot X6 carried a hyperspectral camera which makes the substances of the vine leaf visible, allowing conclusions to be formed about the health of the plant. This way, the saying “in vino veritas” takes on a whole new meaning.
Rescue drones: Help from above
Drones can save not only hares, fawns and vintages but also human lives. The air rescue services of the ADAC, the German General Automobile Association, is looking into the use of manned multicopters as part of their emergency services. In cooperation with the Institute for Emergency Care and Medicine Management of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, ADAC will be simulating air rescue missions with the volocopters from Bruchsal in the spring of 2019. The first research flights are planned shortly after.
A defibrillator comes flying in … In the event of a cardiac arrest, every minute counts, but emergency services cannot always reach every scene in time. Defibrillator drones, like the ones being developed by the Swedish start-up Flypulse which have already been tested in flight, can bring help – or simply provide more people with the opportunity to perform first aid, as they may be right next to the affected person.
The drones developed by the start-up MamaBird, founded by an American and a Malawi native in Washington DC, is expected to transport medication, vaccinations and food for pregnant women, mothers and children into remote regions in Malawi in the near future, followed by additional regions.
The German Rescue Association DLRG primarily uses drones in the search for missing people. The rescue services generally have a better view over impassable terrain from the air. Drones also produce great results with high-resolution cameras underwater. The use of drones as independent aid for saving people in danger of drowning is conceivable but currently still in a “highly dynamic innovation stage”, according to DLRG.
Airplanes and helicopters have been used for firefighting for decades, while drones are still being tested. The start-up Aerones from Riga has now managed to retrofit a heavy-load drone to a firefighting drone. An exercise undertaken in the summer of 2017 produced promising results. As a result, the Latvian company is currently registering the patent for this technology. The cynicism of history: Defective (hobby) drones have already caused several forest fires, and drones attempting to film the fire have interfered with firefighting planes.
Drones and drone defense
As expedient as drones may be, they can also do other things. Whir around and be irritating and disruptive. After all, who wants the neighbor’s flying camera looking into the yard? Disruptive action, such as the cancellation of thousands of flights at Gatwick Airport at the beginning of the year because drones were sighted, is a serious problem. The fear of terrorist attacks is growing. It has become clear that the race for innovation between drones and their defense began long ago. Defensive measures are categorized into passive measures (such as triggering alarms) and active measures: Jamming, for example, involves disruptive signals which terminate the radio link to the drone, forcing it to land. Sending a manipulated GPS signal to the drone in order to get it off-course is referred to as spoofing. Depending on the air defense strategy of the affected state, threatening flying objects can be intercepted or shot down using lasers, water cannons, firearms or kamikaze drones. Another option is to render them unable to fly using adhesive, strong sounds or leashes.
Higher, further, more
The boom for drones has just begun, whether for leisure, commercial or military applications. According to the NZZ, over 80 companies with more than 2,500 employees in total are active in digital aviation in Switzerland. German Air Traffic Control is expecting the number of drones in Germany to rise to more than one million by the year 2020. The revenue from the sales of civil drones will grow to approximately five million US dollars by the year 2021 according to forecasts by the statistics portal statista.com. The flying altitude of civil drones is restricted by law. The expectations, however, continue to rise higher and higher.
UAV, UAS, AAV, etc.
Drones, microcopters and multicopters are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or autonomous aerial vehicles (AAV). The ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) uses the term UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems). They are called multicopters because they are equipped with multiple rotors: Quadrocopters have four, hexacopters have six and octocopters have eight rotors. Unmanned aircraft or underwater systems are either controlled by people remotely or by an integrated or remote computer, making them partially or fully autonomous. The term drone does not even appear in Swiss legislature. Unmanned aircraft systems are considered as airplane models. Passenger drones are naturally always occupied by at least one person, making them technically not drones. But most people and media take some liberties when it comes to the names.
Involved in the drone boom
… are many others, in addition to the mentioned companies. Due to the pragmatic legislature, Switzerland is also known as the Drone Mecca. More than 80 start-ups were founded in “Drone Valley” between the Technical Universities of Zurich and Lausanne.
The delivery drone in its own protective cage can be opened like a package, folded together after use and placed in a drawer.
This ETH spin-off is developing drones specialized in cartography and topography reliefs.
The dynamic flight devices of this Zurich-based start-up are used in entertainment events, for example during performances of Cirque du Soleil and shows at Madison Square Garden.
The drone defense technology of this Kassel-based company detects suspicious flying objects, is able to initiate counter-measures, and is intended to provide protection from espionage, smuggling activities, terrorist activities and privacy violations.
This company, headquartered in Toronto, wants to create nothing less than a “railroad in the sky”, in other words: develop innovative and cost-efficient logistics solutions for the many remote Canadian communities.