Own place for drones in the air between helicopters and planes

For many of us, drones are primarily toys. But they can do more and more. Civilian drones are taking on more and more serious tasks, such as transporting blood plasma or medicine, inspecting railway embankments, bridges or industrial facilities for damage or collecting environmental data. And more and more are coming. In a recent study, the German Association of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles expects the drone market to grow by 525 percent by 2030. By then, 126,000 commercial and around 721,000 private drones would be flying over Germany. To prevent accidents, there will now be a special airspace area for drones.

Why are we writing about this topic:

Innovation Origins regularly reports on developments in drones. These planes are becoming more and more common.

Large-scale testing of DLR

Drones, air taxis, helicopters and planes then make controlled use of the same airspace, especially over large cities. The EU has already issued a directive that regulates exactly this. This came into effect yesterday (January 23, 2023). Researchers from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) have carried out practical tests at the research airport Cochstedt near Magdeburg to find out how air traffic control should work in such conditions.

In the “CORUS-XUAM” project, researchers used a “Volocopter” cargo drone and a DLR helicopter to test different operational scenarios that could take place over our cities in the near future. “CORUM-XUAM” stands for “Concept of Operations for European UTM systems – Extensions for urban air mobility”.

The goal was to learn how drones and helicopters can best avoid each other and how air traffic control can work for both. In addition to DLR, German aviation service provider DFS, its service subsidiary Droniq and air taxi manufacturer Volocopter were also involved.

A special airspace for drones

The current air traffic control or air navigation services is based on two pillars. The first pillar is a comprehensive package of air traffic rules that prescribe flight paths, flight altitudes, take-off and landing procedures and avoidance rules. The second pillar is constant radio contact between pilots and air traffic controllers on the ground.

However, this system is reaching its limits. Many drones are too small and fly too low to be detected by surveillance radars. Moreover, there are more and more, and many drones will be autonomous. This requires a highly automated air traffic control system that complements conventional air traffic control and extends it to the extremely low altitude range.

Integrated drone control center for industrial multicopter drones/UAS in the Port of Hamburg/Germany. Photo: © Thorsten Indra

DLR and European partners are working on the so-called “U-Space”. Drone flights are automatically guided from takeoff to landing on the target. A U-space is a restricted area in lower airspace less than 120 meters above an urban environment. It controls and coordinates both drone flights and aerial flights with air taxis, helicopters or airplanes. This is to ensure that a rescue helicopter can pass at any time.

Service provider

Mainly commercial and industrial drones must fly in U-space. The coordination of a U-space is provided by a special U-space provider. Users can register their flights with this service provider and track the flight themselves. Here they get flight approval and a safe flight path.

The U-Space provider offers the following services:

  • Identification of the drone, which is equipped with an electronic number plate and announces its position.
  • Approval, flight clearance and route planning.
  • Information on current traffic and any flight restrictions in the U-space.

“During the CORUS-XUAM flight tests in Cochstedt, we took over in detail the provision of a U-Space service that can detect and resolve route conflicts for an air taxi both in the planning phase and during active flight,” said Karolin Schweiger from the DLR Institute for Flight Guidance. “This ensures that the air taxi can also communicate safely in the air with spontaneous and unpredictable road users such as rescue helicopters.”

Urban scenarios in the test flight

DLR researchers simulated two scenarios in Cochstedt. One of these simulated a connection between Frankfurt city center and Rhine-Main airport. The second scenario simulated a connection between London City Airport and London Heathrow using a drone. For both scenarios, the experts had established positions that differed vertical gates should suggest. Registration, clearing and planning of the individual flight paths took place via the U-Space service’s digital network. The flight tests also included alternative scenarios, such as if a rescue helicopter were to fly through or land in U-Space.

Course corrections

The role of the rescue helicopter was played by a real ADAC helicopter. The researchers then tested different response options in the individual scenarios. In the “Frankfurt” scenario, the Volocopter drone had to avoid the helicopter using automatic course correctors. Over the virtual London, the research teams chose a different approach. This time they slowed the drone to stay away from normal air traffic or again to avoid a helicopter. A lower airspeed also helps to compensate for delays at the target.

European U-space

The tests at Cochstedt’s research airport are part of a series of similar tests throughout Europe. In Germany, there have already been other large tests with a U-room. One example is a large-scale test over the port of Hamburg. Between May 2021 and November 2021, DFS and Droniq conducted a real U-Space laboratory together with partners from Hamburg. Participants included the Hamburg Port Authority, Hamburg Aviation and the city’s economic authority. As with Cochstedt, the services essential to a U-space had to be tested under real conditions. Thus, for the first time, drones were deployed over a 30 square kilometer area of ​​the port of Hamburg in accordance with the requirements of the European aviation safety agency EASA. The results will then lead to the design of real U-spaces over our cities.

Photo above: A drone in flight as part of the U-Space Reallabor Hamburg Harbour.

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