The skies above Hamburg

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”.

Today, the HHLA magazine “Gateway to the Future” looks at the question of how drones will change logistics. Lothar Müller, one of two managing directors at HHLA Sky, is sure to have lots of answers. Lothar, we’re curious.
Thank you, Christian, for inviting me to this interview. My name is Lothar Müller. I’m a physicist and mechanical engineer, and I have really been working with new things for my whole career. Inventing new things in the truest sense of the word, developing them and bringing them to market. That’s why HHLA Sky is actually the ideal position for me at the moment.

Your name, “HHLA Sky”, hints at the dimensions that you want to open up – in other words, airspace. And of course, you want to be literally at the top of your league. What exactly have you got planned?
Yes, we want HHLA Sky to be a driving force. Not just in Germany, but in Europe. We want to develop the technology to make drone flights safe and efficient. So that people can send not just one drone through the air, but a whole fleet. We want to ultimately be in a position where we don’t always need to be able to see the drone but can control it beyond the visual line of sight.

HHLA Sky is not really a start-up any more. You’ve already developed an exceptional product. What’s it all about?
Yes, our product is already on the market. It’s an end-to-end solution: we offer our own robust industrial drones as well as a control centre. This means well over 100 drones can be flown simultaneously beyond the visual line of sight, and we can monitor and control them wherever they are in the world. Of course, we also offer consultancy services so that customers can obtain permits from the authorities and provide training for their staff.

Our Hamburg site has become a focal point for drone research, technology and logistics. Why Hamburg? How would you explain this?
In Hamburg, there is already a lot of expertise at hand because it is one of the world’s biggest sites for the aviation industry. On the other hand, Hamburg also offers the ideal testing grounds. We have two airports, are in a controlled airspace, and can of course use the Port of Hamburg and the city itself as a testing ground.

One of the current research projects seems to be particularly significant. Federal Minister Andreas Scheuer even presented the subsidy approval in person. What exactly is this project all about?
Yes, we are partners in the UDVeo project, which is short for urban drone traffic efficiently organised. I think they had to think for a while to come up with that name, but it describes what we want to achieve very well. We want to create a transport management system for public spaces. For a densely populated area, to really make transport possible within the City of Hamburg. And yes, we are delighted that we can contribute our expertise as drone operators and technology manufacturers.

Flying drones in urban spaces poses many challenges. What needs to be addressed first?
I must say that unmanned aviation in urban areas is highly complex and requires the cooperation of many parties. The German government is responsible for airspace, while the local community is responsible for traffic on the ground. We are the precise intersection between two important players. And of course, aviation operates in a regulatory environment that is currently beset by uncertainty – as well as by a great deal of competitive pressure and territorial claims by established players.

Speaking of uncertainty, the same could be said of the legal framework. Is that something you are dealing with in the UDVeo project?
Other Hamburg companies are also involved in the UDVeo project, as is the Hamburg Ministry of Economy, Transport and Innovation with the civil aviation authorities. So we have great support in terms of the legal issues. What we do is to anticipate the direction in which the legal framework is likely to develop. The legal framework is provided by the European Commission’s implementing regulations. We are working to establish an urban traffic management system based on the legal regulations to come. We’re building a system that should certainly be able to go into operation in 2023.

And once the relevant laws have been passed, you will make the appropriate technical system available right away.
That’s right; it’s a practical project. We are working with the aviation authorities and the Hamburg Ministry of Economy, Transport and Innovation. We have very close connections to the EU Commission and to the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). The project is also being funded by government grants from the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure. The government is thus basically right on board and naturally expects results. If we can manage to implement a system like this in Hamburg, of course it’s a role model for Germany and other German states. And not just for Germany, but for the EU as a whole, because the legal framework will be the same all over the EU by 2023 or 2024.

Regarding the role of HHLA Sky in this UDVeo project: You actually provide software for drone control centres. In the future, will there be a control centre that can bundle and coordinate all the different modes of transport in the city?
I think there are two dimensions to this. One is that, at the moment, we have built a control centre for transport within an industrial park or industrial area. The logical progression, of course, is to organise transport outside our site and have drones fly beyond our gates. The drones could then fly to other companies or to another industrial area. That would be the first step. The second step would be to really organise transport in public spaces. This second dimension would be to control not only drones, which are actually robots, but also other robots. That would mean both on the campus or industrial site and in the public realm. For example, floor-bound vehicles could be integrated. And let’s say if this vehicle can’t get out of its parking spot, a control centre can help it get back on the road again.

Where did you start, from a practical point of view, with this project?
We started with a drone that is used to inspect a bridge. Even this drone had to first get into the air and be taken to the appropriate bridge. We had to make sure that nothing like a high-rise building was in its flight path. The second thing was to get a second drone in the air at the same time, and maybe even in the same area – to transport a tissue sample from a hospital to a central lab, for example. Naturally, this mission has a different priority than the inspection drone. And you then have to ask yourself: What does one drone need to know from another so that both of them can complete their missions safely and efficiently? We wanted to avoid the drone with the tissue sample taking off and making the inspection drone have to land. That wouldn’t be an efficient system. The other important thing is that you’re dealing not only with drones but with aviation traffic in the lower airspace. Such as a rescue helicopter, which makes between ten and 50 flights a day in Hamburg. A manoeuvrable rescue helicopter can fly at 120 km/h. That means you need a warning time of two minutes for drones and you would have to leave a circle of five kilometres around the rescue helicopter. It then becomes clear that, if the rescue helicopters were to simply fly without informing the control centre of their flight plans, you would have to completely block the entire airspace above Hamburg.

All the information about the use of airspace is meant to be transmitted to a control centre and then shared.
Exactly, so that everyone involved can obtain the information they need to use the airspace safely. But also so that they can use their airspace more efficiently for their mission and can plan effectively. If you take these three missions – the inspection drone, a drone transporting tissue samples through Hamburg, and the rescue helicopter – you have three objects in the air. The step towards ten participants in the airspace, or 50 or 100, is rather small in terms of scalability.

So, in concrete terms, which tasks will drones be carrying out first? Maybe you could give us a few examples, perhaps even from Hamburg?
I think the first thing will be the transportation of tools – small parts or laboratory samples. Anywhere where you need a result quickly or have to complete repairs quickly, so that follow-up processes can be initiated. Or bridge inspections, for example. If you can inspect bridges quickly and efficiently without having to close them down, it avoids bottlenecks. This will be a very important application. Especially in Hamburg, where we have plenty of bridges. Other topics will include avoiding courier deliveries in vehicles, which will certainly focus on medical transports – that is, if a surgeon is conducting an operation today, makes a quick incision and wants to have it quickly tested. Today, the courier has to drive through the city and you have to wait for the results from the lab sample. And the patient is still lying on the operating table. The faster this can be done, the better – and the lower the risk.

You called drones the Swiss army knives of the 21st century. That’s an apt comparison. But is there anything that these Swiss army knives, the drones, are not suitable for?
Let’s talk about the Swiss army knife for a second. We can do a lot with drones – much more than we can even imagine today. Perhaps everyone remembers the beautiful pictures of the Mars mission. There they also launched drones so that the rover knew where to go and it didn’t get stuck because of some obstacle or other. I think drones will catch on wherever there is a recognisable need. Drones will not prevail when they are just a substitute for something else. That is, when they take the place of a transport that may currently be carried out by helicopter, or if drone flights are used to substitute for passenger flights by helicopter. Simple substitutions will probably not be successful. Instead, we have to first do really new things – and that can happen much more cost-effectively.

That was a very realistic assessment. Thank you, Lothar. We’ve learned that drones are certain to play a much bigger role in logistics in the future. And I’m sure the same is true for HHLA Sky.
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