Just imagine: Drones are part of everyday life in the metropolitan area of Hamburg – tissue samples are transported between hospitals and laboratories, emergency responses to accidents and road traffic at the port are coordinated from the air using live images. The Elbphilharmonie windows, quay walls and the container gantry crane inspections can also be done by drone.
Is this something that will happen in the future? It is already being tested! The City of Hamburg is well on its way to making this a reality, and Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG (HHLA) is providing important momentum for opening up the airspace for logistical solutions. Like cars, trains and ships, drones have become a part of everyday life. They are safe and can be used in as many ways as a Swiss Army knife.
HHLA-Sky has won the German Innovation Award 2021. The HHLA magazine spoke to Lothar Müller, one of the two managing directors at HHLA Sky, about the future of drone logistics. The technophile manager calls drones the “Swiss army knife of the 21st century”.
News in recent months shows that Hamburg is becoming the leading drone innovation metropolis – at least in Germany. It has won awards, and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the Federal Ministry of Transport have both awarded generous funding. Many drone projects generated a lot of interest at the ITS Congress in Hamburg.
On 25 June HHLA Sky won the German innovation award in the start-up category with its international drone management system. The HHLA subsidiary is also involved with testing U-space (previously largely unused air space). Together with Droniq, German air traffic control (DFS [Deutsche Flugsicherung]) and other partners, the subsidiary will create a real laboratory to implement EU regulations for managing drone airspace. Michael Westhagemann, Senator for Economic Affairs: “The Port of Hamburg offers the ideal conditions for testing a traffic system for drones and understanding and evaluating the opportunities and risks.”
Much has happened since the Hanseatic city became one of the European Union’s first official model regions for investigating the civilian applications of drones and other urban air traffic technologies in 2018. Hardware and software start-ups were launched along with projects at universities. This created a network of innovators and companies.
One example of this is Spherie, a start-up that HHLA invested in. It develops drones in the Speicherstadt historical warehouse district that enable 360-degree film-making, virtual reality applications and 3D models. Managing Director Nicolas Chibac said this in an interview: “HHLA’s investment is important in developing our technology further – one of the things we have done is increase flight time from three minutes to 25 minutes and we are also working with a significantly smaller drone.”
Drone Industry Insights is also based in Hamburg. Since 2014 it has established itself as a consulting company and database provider using market research. The company conducted a study for the German Unmanned Aviation Association (VUL) in Berlin and discovered that Germany is now the largest commercial drone market in Europe with €840 million (highlight in copy) and the fourth largest market in the world after USA, China and Japan.
Founder and CEO Kay Wackwitz: “With the existing aviation expertise, Hamburg has the right people for this business.” Germany may be slow in implementing drones in an international comparison, but here in Hamburg a lot is going on compared to other German cities – which is amazing.” Wackwitz adds that there is still a lot of potential in industrial applications in Hamburg, such as the inspection of around 2,500 bridges in the city.
This dense activity in the North German metropolis was driven by the air traffic cluster Hamburg Aviation, which founded the drone network “Windrove” back in 2017. Project Head Daniela Richter: “Hamburg has unusually good conditions. As the world’s third largest aviation industry location, the city has the technical expertise as well as a sound awareness for aircraft in terms of science and management. Hamburg enabled test and pilot operations under real conditions for challenging projects early on. This gave Hamburg a head start in experience that is becoming increasingly obvious.
Windrove brings together users, designers and suppliers of drone-based services and products from Hamburg in one ecosystem and is continually expanding this network both nationally and internationally. “This open and solution-oriented exchange promotes the development as well as the safe and fair use of commercial applications,” adds Richter.
One example of the success of Windrove’s network is “Medifly”, a joint venture between seven industry and software companies and public institutions led by GLVI Gesellschaft für Luftverkehrsinformatik mbH. Following an initial successful simulation of the transport of tissue samples with a drone between two hospitals five kilometres apart in Hamburg, medication and lab samples look set to be regularly transported above the heavily populated areas of the city, which has 1.8 million inhabitants, from 2022.
Another good example of the well functioning cooperation between industry, universities and start-ups in Hamburg is the “UDVeo” project. A consortium, which HHLA Sky is a part of and which is led by Hamburg’s Helmut-Schmidt University, has taken on the task of developing a control centre for safe and efficient drone traffic approved by the authorities.
While there is a well-established international safety and legal system for traditional civil and military air traffic, safe general management of drone flights within large cities is neither regulated nor tested. The European Commission published a framework for the management of special so-far largely unused airspace (U-space) in April this year that will come into effect in all EU countries in January 2023.
UDVeo intends to turn regulatory requirements into practical rules – in order to enable a large number of drone applications within Hamburg. HHLA Sky will add its expertise as a commercial operator and be responsible for providing qualified drone operation. If the tests are successful, Hamburg will be able to continue expanding its leading role as a centre for drone applications.