U-Spaces for drones

The market for drones used professionally is growing rapidly. In Germany alone, approximately 135,000 new commercial “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” (UAS) are expected to take off by 2025. The EU wants to regulate and monitor the use of drones in “U-spaces” between 0 and 120 metres above the ground to ensure that the airspace is safe

HHLA Sky has developed a particularly innovative control centre techno- logy for drones and other autonomous vehicles (AMR). This control centre can operate entire vehicle fleets centrally and simultaneously at different deployment sites. It integrates UTM technology, which regulates and coordinates drone traffic in public spaces.

HHLA Sky also builds special, highly robust and safe industrial drones and offers them to customers. € 44 billion could be the market volume of drone logistics by 2030. A business field with a lot of potential.

Flying on the safe side

From toy to universal tool: commercial interest in autonomously flying or remotely piloted unmanned aerial vehicles is growing rapidly. “Drones can handle many tasks ranging from inspection, observation and surveillance to transport and logistics more easily, efficiently and in a more environmentally friendly manner in comparison to what was previously possible from the ground,” said Matthias Gronstedt, Managing Director of the Hamburg- based technology developer and drone pioneer HHLA Sky, explaining the trend. But this requires special EU regulations, and the subsidiary of Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG is closely involved in their development and implementation. U-spaces are intended to ensure the safety of all air traffic.

What does a U-space look like?

A U-space is not something you can see. It is a digitally managed airspace in which unmanned aerial vehicles fly according to specific rules. The term not only applies geographically. It also covers the regulatory framework for drone operations and the processes necessary for coordination. When completed, the U-space can encompass an entire country, but it will initially be limited to regions with particularly high drone traffic. The rules include definitions of the flight sequence from registration to the actual flight, as well as safety plans, landing and monitoring. U-space service providers play a key role. Similar to air traffic control in manned aviation, they coordinate individual flights in the U-space. An important issue is the integration of manned air traffic in the lower airspace as well as the concerns of the safety and rescue authorities, who are allowed to close an airspace during an operation.

A U-Space as a model

In U-space, drone operators use various services in order to fly safely and in conformity with regulations. One of these services is geo-awareness, which drone operators use to find out where the use of drones may be restricted. It not only provides information regarding permanent restrictions (e.g. over airports), but also shows dynamic events such as rescue operations or temporary closures so that the airspace in these zones is kept clear.

Restrictions in geozones

Drone flights are ...  🔴 generally prohibited  🟡 permitted with special permission.

Hover over the image for details.

Why must drone flights be coordinated?

Avoiding conflicts between users is one of Sebastian Törsleff’s most important tasks. He helped develop the basis for U-spaces in the research project “Urban drone traffic efficiently organised” (UDVeo) at Hamburg’s Helmut Schmidt University and then switched to HHLA Sky. The specialist focuses on putting the rules into practice. “This is not about regulating another area of public life. U-spaces will enhance the efficient and highly economical use of drones.”

The unmanned aerial systems will mainly be deployed in urban areas and over industrial and company premises. Coordinating their use is not only about preventing conflicts between drones. In the relevant lower airspace, for example, there are also rescue helicopters in operation, which are sometimes only perceptible at close range. “The sooner we have a set of rules that applies to all parties and provides clarity for drone use, the better this will be for the development of the drone economy,” said Sebastian Törsleff with conviction. Experts estimate that the drone economy will double its turnover to 1.6 billion euros by 2025 in Germany alone.

Where are U-spaces needed?

Urban areas are the first priority. In the long term, Sebastian Törsleff believes that it makes sense to turn the entire Federal Republic of Germany into a regulated U-space. But experiences gained in his research project and test projects at HHLA Sky have shown that a gradual introduction of such zones promises more success. He gives priority to urban flight areas: “That’s where drones will be used most frequently at the beginning, where different operators will start out, and different applications will emerge.” In cities, security agencies such as the police and fire brigade are also making increasing use of drone technology, so coordination already makes sense today.

How can drone operations be coordinated and controlled?

A control centre keeps an eye on everything. Drone pilots already have to pay attention to many things today. Not only when they fly manually, but also when operating autonomous flights that are monitored from a control centre. There are no-fly zones in defined areas, and no drones are allowed to fly over crowds of people. The drone control centre developed by HHLA Sky is paying attention to this, and not just for a single drone, but for dozens deployed simultaneously as well as those operating autonomously. The control centre is considered to be one of the most powerful and, above all, one of the safest control systems for drones and is certified by TÜV as the first of its kind. Thanks to continuous data analysis, it keeps an eye on the current weather as well as the airspace, including any manned aircraft present. An exact flight plan is entered for each drone in advance so that it is possible to react immediately to any deviations. Of course, there must also be evasion and emergency landing areas should a unit need to land back on the ground quickly and safely during an ongoing operation.

Who will take over the control and monitoring of the U-spaces?

There are several services on offer. In the same way that the German Air Traffic Control controls manned aviation over Germany, there will also be similar companies for drones. The EU allows different companies to offer their services in parallel. Anyone who wants to use a drone must register their flight there, submit a corresponding schedule and be able to respond to safety-relevant events at any time. This applies to the flight of recreational drones weighing more than 250 grams and also to semi-professional and commercial drones. “It goes without saying that it is important to also involve government agencies such as the police and rescue services in this system,” said Sebastian Törsleff. “Only then can we react immediately if, for example, rescue helicopters are flying through a U-space or an airspace needs to be closed because of a police or fire brigade operation.”

When will the first U-spaces go live?

The EU has already taken the initiative. Theoretically, controlled airspaces for drones can already be set up – the EU rules for U-spaces have been in force since 26 January 2023. The first companies are also ready to take over the control of drone traffic. But it will still take some time before the controlled flight zones in the lower airspace are fully established: “In addition to working out detailed procedures, important technical requirements still have to be created,” explained Sebastian Törsleff. Among other things, all stakeholders need to be on the same page. The fact that the EU has taken the initiative so early is an important and very supportive signal for drone companies like HHLA Sky.

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