In just a few years, drones could be buzzing through the air en masse in Germany – delivering parcels, transporting medicines or reporting traffic jams, for example. For Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU), the somewhat bulky aircraft known as “unmanned aviation systems” have enormous potential for a wide variety of applications.
With an action plan, the federal government wants to establish drones as an everyday mode of transport in just a few years – and make them a German export hit.
Until then, there are open questions to be answered: As paralyzed airports have repeatedly shown after drone sightings, the accident-free integration of the UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) into civil air traffic is one of the greatest challenges. How this could actually work will be tried out in the Port of Hamburg in the coming months. The largest German seaport will be the first nationwide test field for a drone transport system in Germany.
The state-run Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS) and Droniq GmbH, a participation of DFS and Deutsche Telekom, want to practically explore in a test area of around ten square kilometers how drone flights are “easy, safe and in coordination with manned air traffic”, they said participating companies. The Ministry of Transport is funding the “real laboratory” with just under half a million euros. At the end of the day there should be a “blueprint for the establishment of regular drone airspace in Germany”, according to the Ministry of Transport.
Drones are already in massive use, but so far only to a very limited extent in commercial traffic. According to an industry study, there are currently more than 430,000 drones in use in Germany, but the number of commercially used aircraft at 45,200 is significantly lower than that of private aircraft, which are mostly used as photo drones or toys. But since 2019 the number of commercially operated drones has more than doubled (plus 138 percent), while the number of privately used drones has declined (minus 14.5 percent), it says in the market investigation for the Association of Unmanned Aviation.
The number of commercially operated UAS is expected to triple to 132,000 by 2025. “The market for private drones seems to be saturated; at the same time, the commercial use of drones is enjoying increasing popularity.”
According to the study, measurement is at the top of the range of applications. Inspection and mapping tasks are also labor-intensive, time-consuming and sometimes dangerous without the use of drones. Drones are also increasingly being used to inspect buildings and infrastructures such as wind turbines and high-voltage lines. The federal government sees new applications in its action plan, for example in traffic monitoring on roads and waterways, in exploring landscapes and in disaster control – and in logistics: parcels could be delivered by drone, components could be transported between production plants.
“Construction site inspection, route inspection, tissue transport: drones are increasingly being used commercially,” reports Droniq. “For this, drone flights must be easy and quick to carry out. A requirement that cannot always be implemented, especially in areas with a high number of drones, due to the sometimes lengthy flight authorization processes.”
The concept of a U-Space is intended to remedy this. In a spatially delimited airspace, according to the idea, “special rules and procedures coordinate the drone traffic and enable drone flights to be carried out quickly, safely and without long approval efforts – even outside the pilot’s range of vision”.
Droniq boss Jan-Eric Putze speaks of a “milestone” for unmanned air traffic. “Thanks to the U-Space, the full potential of the drone can also be used within a given framework in urban areas in the future.” Transport Minister Scheuer promises a boost for his plan to make Germany the international pioneer of drone technology: “With the U-Space real-world laboratory, we are bringing drone innovations Made in Germany out of their niche and into the air.”
Specifically, the drone traffic in the U-Space is to be coordinated by a service provider; Droniq takes on this role with its traffic management system for drones. “It issues flight permits for the drone missions and informs the (drone) pilots about the current manned and unmanned air traffic as well as any airspace restrictions.” All relevant airspace and air traffic data come from DFS. According to the planning at the green table, there will be various test flights “in which drone flights of different complexities are tested inside and outside the range of vision up to an altitude of 150 meters”. At the end of the fall, flight weeks with practical demonstrations are planned.