Taking off at last
Five questions about the electrification of air travel - Jan Ivo Springborn
2020 could be the year of the drone, says umlaut expert Jan Ivo Springborn. New EU directives are enabling autonomous flight, start-ups the world over are developing air taxis and sensor platforms. And major airlines are also performing research into new engines. Five questions about the electrification of air travel.
A lot of drones are toys for grown-ups. Why are business applications for electric aerial vehicles on an industrial scale virtually non-existent?
To start with, I’m constantly amazed at how fast the trend grew in the consumer market. In model aircraft, the story of electric engines always used to be ‘no power, short life’. That has turned around now, as electric engines improved and batteries became lighter and more powerful. However, the technology is still a challenge for commercial and industrial application. Added to that is the infrastructure: drones also have to take off, land, be charged and maintained somewhere. There’s also the question of standards and regulations: how do we integrate new aerial vehicles safely into airspace?
A propos regulations: in the year 2020, the legislation on drone flights in the EU will change. What do we have to look out for?
In future, a so-called “risk-based approach” will apply. For example, if I fly a light drone in an unpopulated area, the risk is low. It will be easier to do that in future. If I fly over a crowded location or have a heavy device, stricter rules apply. The key point is this: the system is opening up. There will be commercial drones heavier than the 25 kilos permitted in Germany up till now. It will also be possible to operate drones automatically and out of the line of sight under certain conditions – with the appropriate restrictions.
What applications will become relevant after the amendment?
In principle, the new approach enables automation. For instance, I could build a drone that flies up and down the motorway every day observing the traffic, or checks the power lines. Drones as sensor and repair platforms, in other words. We’re market leaders in the measurement of mobile communication connectivity at umlaut, we see huge potential there. If need be, we’ll also do our own development – but our actual strength lies in integrating the new technologies into business processes or into an enterprise. We provide support in translating the complex aviation regulations into minimum standards for quality management and configuration for start-ups and companies. In the next step, we’ll also help with the industrialisation of a product.
One hyped topic at the moment is “Urban Air Mobility”: when will our parcels fly through the city centre, when will we ourselves be out there in air taxis?
As I see it, industry believes in drones as a means for transporting goods, because there are scalable business cases behind that, for example at the large mail order firms. As far as personal transport is concerned, for example air taxis, there’s a mass of initiatives at present, but it’s hard to predict if and when the concept will be successful in the mass market. The nice thing about the idea is that it is so tangible. We need concepts like that as a driver, with leading edge technologies being used and gaining acceptance in everyday life. That’s why it’s better to try something and possibly fail than to call a halt because of doubts.
There are early tests of electric engines going on for aircraft as well. What stage have they reached?
The industrial association for air traffic and the major players have proclaimed a vision: “we want to build sustainable aircraft”. However, it can’t be done purely on electricity just yet. One limiting factor is the batteries, which weight for weight don’t store anywhere near the same amount of energy as kerosene, for example. Hybrids are the first step at the moment. At umlaut, we worked on a demonstrator project for a hybrid aeroplane, where one of the four engines will be replaced in a regional aircraft with a capacity of around 70 passengers. The aim was to start by finding out how this kind of electric two-megawatt engine will behave. In other words, hybrids for regional air traffic – electrification could become relevant here within the foreseeable future.
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