How best can you describe the journey of yours since its humble beginnings to where it is now?
Digitalization, mobile robots & AI: the potential of drones in industrial use was obvious to many people years ago. So, we jumped right into the question: What if we scale drone missions for industrial usage? How efficient might be simultaneous operating drones for then? What huge potential could flying robots unleash for humanity? By monitoring and mapping assets and infrastructure in real time – interconnected with AI supported data analysis.
And we found some answers, how to realize it.
At HHLA Sky we developed a process management and drone control platform that maps the entire process chain for safe and secure drone flights. Not only have the BVLOS flighted control. Our Integrated Control Center (ICC) is a powerful, open and modular industrial IoT platform to support end-to-end processes. The ICC interfaces with drone hardware running our ROS2-based drone operating system.
By the way: Our brand-new X4 drone recently was awarded with the Red Dot Design Award in the highest distinction “Best of the Best”. The Integrated Control Center has been also awarded, already in 2021. This forward-thinking solution has won the prestigious German Innovation Award.
Via our Integrated Control Center, organizations can manage and control 100+ automated drones or autonomous mobile robots (AMR) at different locations – simultaneously. The solution is continuously expanded and is refined to the user’s needs, as more and more clients are onboarded and bring their use cases along.
What are the various products and services that HHLA Sky drones has in offer currently? Could you elaborate its specifications, capabilities and the possible modifications?
We offer a variety of drones for different types of governmental usage and industrial business fields. The connected drones, be they flying, swimming or ground-based, can be actively monitored and controlled BVLOS via our Integrated Control Center, along with their periphery, such as a base station. Data streams, like HD RGB video, infrared video, or other sensor data, can be transmitted in real time to up to 20 clients each.
The award-winning X4 drone is geared towards first responders and security professionals. Easy to carry, deploy and to fly, the X4 provides low-noise operations making it well-suited for silent person detection and track-and-trace. Data streams are fully encrypted, end-to-end from the camera sensor to the remote control or control center.
Moreover, to ensure safety and security in an enterprise context, our platform is certified according to IEC 62443, at a demanding level of cybersecurity for operational technology. Together, the ICC and the X11 multi-purpose hexacopter drone have been certified by the German technical inspection agency TÜV NORD. The entire system was tested, including communication between the drone and the Integrated Control Center. HHLA Sky’s drone system is the world’s first cybersecurity certified drone system.
Why did we go to such great lengths? Our customers often operate in critical infrastructures. An IoT strategy that has safety and cybersecurity built-in from the outset is just as important to them as the efficiency gains from using automated drones. With our mother company operating critical infrastructure – container terminals at the port of Hamburg, means that we understand and know these requirements well. This is our DNA. So with this being our testing grounds, the whole system and all drones were developed to be suitable for deployment in critical infrastructures.
Our X11 multi-purpose hexacopter can be used for automated asset inspections. But you can use the X11 also for surveys, e.g. photogrammetry.
Our new X25 cargo drone can carry up to 22 pounds or provides a range of up to 15 miles. It can also be used for heavier sensor payloads. To fully realize the potential of automation, an automated docking station will soon be completed, where packages are received or mounted automatically.
An autonomous mobile robot could also take over the freight and deliver it into the storage house or production line.
For long distances we offer a VTOL, as this design increases range and speed. Our VTOL provides up to 136 miles range and 68 mph maximum speed and can be used in delivery, for surveys or linear infrastructure inspections.
In short: With this set of drones and a scalable system we can cater to a wide variety of use cases. But, how to manage multitudes of drones flying through the lower airspace? U-spaces and UTM are the topics.
What is your opinion on U-Space? What are the complications in implementing fully? What are the supports required from the drone industry to make it successful?
U-spaces, the European flavour of UTM, really can boost drone usage through automation – and we are actively working to make it a reality. Together with commercial and research partners across Europe we have developed and keep refining the tools and processes needed for U-spaces which support a safe co-existence of many drones, along with automated management of flight plans.
In urban areas, the lower airspace is already highly frequented by starting and landing planes, police and rescue helicopters and soon by many commercial drones. So, secure systems are needed to ensure safe separation and deconfliction. Projects like Genius, UDveo, and LUV, and others which we are of have been involved, are necessary to gain the insights needed to create fair and efficient access to airspace. We do this in close dialogue with EASA, the German Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport, as well as other CAAs and stakeholders in this developing eco-system.
A core focus of our UTM control center is to automate processes, all the while having safety in mind. Therefore we also include a conformance monitoring service. Among others, this allows USSPs to see whether a drone stays within the assigned airspace and will issue warnings if there are deviations from the plan. We had also advocated to include this as a mandatory service in Germany, in addition to the four required by EU regulation, since this can greatly enhance safety and automation.
What are some of the challenges that the Drone industry faces for BVLOS specifically?
Well, building safe drones and systems supporting such operations to mitigate ground risk is one thing, and we, as well as the industry is trying hard to attain that. With very good success.
More importantly, the other chief area to address for flying BVLOS is the air risk of course. The concept of U-Spaces, in its initial phases addresses this by segregation between manned and unmanned aircraft. Ultimately, full integration of the two is envisioned, but to reduce the “moving parts” and to get going until other challenges are solved, and solutions are rolled out, this route was chosen.
Until equipage with electronic conspicuity of all aircraft is mandatory and universal visibility is attained, U-Spaces are really a wise and logical choice, I believe, and more universal than the corridor concept some are trialing.
In short, the greatest challenge for universal, true BVLOS is the lack of mandated electronic conspicuity. And shortly after this, an adaptation of the Rules of the Air is in order as well (which is being worked on already, though)
Emerging technologies like block chain, IoT, Artificial Intelligence have found many usages in different fields. What can you comment on them?
Deeply integrated services into existing business processes, that’s the key feature. Then, you build them with the technology needed. Our ICC, for instance, is an industrial IoT platform. Because it’s modular, we can plug in value-add services such as an AI module for automated image analysis. We do this at our container terminals in the port of Hamburg to speed up asset inspections and lower costs.
But I can possibly see such technology to be useful in the realm of UTM services as well, e.g., when it comes to automated route planning, taking into account constraints such as geo zones, weather conditions, traffic situation, prioritization and such.
One thing to always consider, though, is that AI often is a bit of a black box. So, choosing such technology in the context of flight planning for example, brings along risks, which need to be taken into account and worked out with the regulator. That is why we initially prefer to devise and apply a more manual approach, and once the moving pieces are better understood by all stakeholders and through real life trials, increased automation will refine those steps/ processes.
Finally, what is your perception of overall Drone Industry? What are your suggestions?
We are only in the very beginning and exciting times are ahead for unmanned aviation! UTM, i.e. digital air traffic management is bound to be a true game changer, comparable with maybe the introduction of radar of the jet engine in vintage aviation. All services in UTM will and will need be digital, to truly capture the potential of automation. One area to pay attention to in this context, is that good standards are needed to allow global scaling.
When it comes to manufacturing drones and their hardware, one challenge we see is the push, and even demand, towards ever greater reliability and redundancy of systems, along with performance and endurance increases. This of course is desirable, but the flip side is that this can result in unreasonable and unrealistic costs, where we are quickly entering the full realm of aviation with all its rigors. That is not to say that anyone wants to compromise in safety, but finding a truly reasonable way through these uncharted waters and a balanced approach is certainly not trivial.
We also see that cyber security in the context of drones will only increase in relevance. Our system has addressed this complex issue from the ground up, and while it was pain stakingly hard, today we see that it is honored and sought after. This is also a topic in the EU drone strategy, at EASA, at JARUS, and now the FCC as well. So, with us being certified at such a demanding standard, we are somewhat ahead of the game here, which is nice.
Let me just briefly touch on just two areas. Either way it will take considerable grit, even at the forecasted CAGRs this is not a no-brainer by any means – but can be very rewarding. If you are planning on developing and selling drone hardware, this can be exciting – but be prepared to bring along a considerable purse filled with funds, and a highly skilled team. And know that you will be in a marathon, things will take longer than you anticipated.
Another area that is at times underestimated and may have some nice niches, is Drones as a service. A lot of companies are dabbling in HW and SW, which is of course important. But at the same time, somebody has to carry out the drone services, deploy, manage and maintain the fleets and associated periphery. To do this properly, efficiently, and safe as far as regulations and operations are concerned, suitable tools are needed and can save you a lot of headaches. This is where our Integrated Control Center can really shine, as it leads your crew through consistent and aided processes, produces results and keeps immutable records of steps taken and actions carried out, along with the possibility to integrate with existing enterprise systems on either end of the process chain. This also allows for automated analysis of data gathered.
How will you visualize the future of Drones in the coming 5-10 years?
I forgot my crystal ball at home (laughs). On a more serious note, I see drones deployed and doing many useful things in ever increasing numbers. They are helping enterprises and other organizations to run automated tasks, be that in the delivery realm – likely in B2B intralogistics at first -, in regular and repeated industrial inspections – this aids in predictive maintenance – or helping to secure critical infrastructures – in conjunction with intelligent fences and other such systems.
All this is supported by UTM systems and integration with manned aviation will have reached a new phase.
Many of the operations will be carried out from control centers such as ours, and will be integrated with other systems, for full business efficiency and automated data handling, e.g., for digital twins, or supply chains. Our solution may be a bit ahead of the times. But in talking with clients worldwide, we find that we are on the right track with the frame work we provide to forward-thinking organizations.
Lastly, there will be countries and jurisdictions that have a hard time preparing for a smooth transition to the inclusion of UAS into their airspace. Because they don’t grasp the paradigm change that is upon us. And there will be many other future oriented ones that are talking to the stakeholders today, identify and understand their needs, are willing to try new ways in controlled environments and create performance-based rules today that will allow this industry to flourish in the near future.