The Gartner company, which considers itself a leading global research firm, publishes a yearly “hype cycle for new technologies”. In it, “autonomous flying modes of transportation” were described as being in the “innovation trigger” phase – meaning they are at the beginning of their technological development.
This will change rather quickly, predicts Sven Howar, operations manager and drone pilot at HHLA Sky. If it were up to him, the in-house start-up of Hamburg-based logistics company HHLA would immediately start to use drones for automated flight operations. Though Germany still has no experience with automated flight to speak of, this can be seen as an opportunity.
“We have no technological problems since we are dealing with mature products,” explains Howar. “The legal and organisational framework has yet to develop, though things have happened on a legislative level.” The 28-year-old knows what he’s talking about: he wrote his academic thesis at Leuphana University Lüneburg on the “possibilities and limits of drone usage for delivery processes in Germany”.
It’s currently possible to become an absolute pioneer in a very promising market, and HHLA Sky wants to take advantage of this. No details can be revealed yet, but one thing is certain: HHLA Sky’s in-house drones are unique. Extremely robust and equipped with all available safety technology, they can in principle carry out every conceivable assignment.
The frequently mentioned express deliveries or other shipments are just a small part of the market. Drones are much more often used to quickly identify impending dangers to industrial areas from the air, as well as for civil protection and environmental monitoring. In the construction industry and in agriculture, drones are used to survey buildings and grounds. HHLA also uses them for maintenance checks of container gantry cranes and fuel depots, and to monitor AGV surfaces at Container Terminal Altenwerder that are off-limits to staff.
“We can attach all kinds of sensors or other tools to our drones,” explains Howar. “For the most part, we collect data on behalf of customers, but we can also build a complete drone control centre for them.” HHLA Sky analyses the problems faced by customers and collaborates with them to find the ideal individualised – and often very specific – solution.
A towering figure, Sven Howar leaves no doubt of his expertise with drones. As a small boy he built remote-control models, which kept getting bigger. The rotor of his current helicopter, which he sends zooming across model airplane fields, has a diameter of 1.20 metres. “A model like this is much more complicated to operate than a modern multicopter, which stabilises itself automatically,” explains Howar.
He easily passed his drone licence test. Since then, he has been authorised to remotely operate HHLA’s drones with the assistance of a control centre developed for HHLA. “Pilots would only ever need this if the automated control were to fail. This has not happened yet in practice, though it has been sufficiently tested in safety checks,” reports Sven Howar.
Sven Howar and the HHLA Sky team simulated this and all other imaginable scenarios last year. All drones and control software were extensively tested in hundreds of flights; emergency landing points were defined, and various practical applications tested. The drone service is finally ready for take-off!