The first thing you should know about drones? They’re not the future — they’re already here. According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2019, there were already around 500,000 drones in Germany — that’s 20 times more than registered commercial airplanes worldwide*. But as with any new technology, the path to progress features some road bumps: in Germany, up until now, drones have largely only been permitted to be used within the operator’s line of sight (exceptions can be granted when the drone operator applies for an exemption from the authorities, which like so much in Germany, involves a shedload of bureaucracy).
Flying drones (mostly) only within a person’s line of sight sounds like common sense until you consider all the scenarios this scenario excludes: namely, those long distance use cases most valuable to industry, like flights to carry spare parts, inspecting or monitoring power lines or rail networks.
Droniq is hoping to change all that. A joint venture from German air traffic control company Deutsche Flugsicherung and Deutsche Telekom, the company aims to enable safe and secure long-distance drone flights. I spoke to Thilo Vogt, the director of sales and business development at the company to find out more about the problem, the solution and the sort of world drones might usher in.
Thilo, could you talk us through the problem?
The issue is this: once drones are in the air, you can’t currently monitor their flight electronically because air traffic control uses radar technology to detect commercial aircraft. That works fine but it only works from about one kilometer and higher from the ground up. The problem is that the maximum height currently allowed for drone flight in Germany is 100m.
So this is where we come into play. We actually make drones visual electronically for the air traffic controls just as large aircrafts are for the air navigation service provider.
And this is how it works: We developed a LTE modem to track aircraft via Deutsche Telekom’s mobile network, we call it “Hook-on-Device” (HOD). Thanks to how light it is, the HOD can be attached to any drone or other aircraft. The Unmanned Air System (UAS) operator receives the UAS’s own position and the position data of other relevant air traffic in the vicinity via the web based UTM tracker. At the same time, the HOD transmits its position via FLARM (flight alarm). In this way, the aircraft also becomes visible to other airspace users in the vicinity who use FLARM.
So how would this change things — what use cases would then become possible?
I see the most promising use cases in the industrial sector, especially in the area of inspection and maintenance. These are jobs that are currently mostly done by helicopters. Drones could do these jobs much more efficiently, quietly and therefore in a much more environmentally friendly fashion. But there are also many possible applications for drones in the fire, police and rescue services. For example, in the event of a major accident or fire, a drone could fly ahead and send the rescue services live images from the scene or provide information on the best access routes. But these same applications which are really socially useful can only be implemented if the drones are operationally integrated into the airspace – safely and efficiently. And this is Droniq’s mission.
There still seems to be a certain level of anxiety about European regulations holding countries back. Where would you say Germany is in terms of winning the “drone race”?
Well, just take the example of air taxi companies. There are a number of startup type companies (both large and small) in Germany creating air taxi solutions. We have larger companies like the automotive groups — Daimler or Porsche or Volkswagen or BMW, all these players have projects focused on air taxis. And then we have small startup companies too like Lilium, Volocopter, which compete with companies like Boeing and the Kitty Hawks.
Of course, I feel there’s some uncertainty at the moment regarding the new regulations for EU drones and the implementation of this in national law. However, in Germany there’s also the sense of a great deal of interest in using drones, especially in the industrial sector, but also in the police, fire brigade and rescue services. In most European countries there are projects or ideas connected to using drones. But as far as I know, there is no other country in Europe where there is a company like Droniq – a joint venture between an air navigation service provider and a telecommunications company which was founded specifically for the UAS market and the integration of UAS into the airspace. I think we are quite well placed.
Germany certainly doesn’t seem to be lagging behind, anyway. Wurzburg-based drone-technology company Emqopter announced last year it had made the first food delivery by drone. How long do you think it will be until getting your food ordered by drone becomes a normal, everyday occurrence?
I don’t know if I believe in the use case outlined here – delivering small things, like a pizza or your Amazon package. It doesn’t make sense to replace something which is (in terms of this specific use case) logistically a better version of a drone — imagine you have 500 parcels. Today, you could deliver those parcels in one van. Now imagine delivering 500 parcels, one by one, using individual drones. Firstly, the cost aspect doesn’t make sense here. And I’m not sure how you’d resolve the handover of the package. But more importantly, it’s hard to imagine how to structure this sort of drone delivery in a manner which would be acceptable to society. I don’t think citizens are willing to be surrounded by millions of small drones delivering small packages.
Of course, this changes if you think about delivering shipments to a location which is really far away and not part of the normal logistical infrastructure: in the mountains, say, or delivering a parcel to a small island in the North Sea or something, there I believe drones make a lot of sense. Not in flying small shipments to urban areas like Berlin or London or Paris.
Realistically, I think the drone delivery we will end up seeing will be the delivery of spare parts or urgent goods. There will be maybe even large drones with the size of today’s Airbus that fly freight from one airfield to another one. This is something I think we’ll see in five to ten years.
Finally — I feel no interview about drones is complete without addressing the elephant in the room: the military use of drones. One oft-cited critique of the military use of drones is that they emotionally distance their operators from their decision to kill – with critics often comparing the technology to playing video games – lowering the threshold for violence. Do you think this critique is valid?
Historically, drone based applications have emerged in the military sector, that is a fact. And that is why I don’t really like the common term “drone”, it is an “unmanned aircraft system” and the purpose for which it is used can be either military or civil. So, I should stress, Droniq deals with civil, cooperative air traffic only. We’re not in charge of running military operations but I want to answer your question. There’s some truth to this idea but the technology for drones is there and it will not vanish, it will not go away. So we need to find a way of using this technology for good, for the benefit of society, knowing that obviously as always, technology will be used in a military context. To be precise, the question of the emotional distance of operators is not one which is specific to drones. It is just the same question that is raised by cruise missiles or any other comparable technology.
Drawn to all things drone-related? Head to our drones meetup, which takes place at hubraum Berlin on the first Wednesday evening of the month and is led by one of our resident startups, Dronemasters. Click here for more information.