ALAADy symposium: Face-to-face with a new transport drone
Can low-cost drones capable of carrying as much weight as a pickup truck be built and operated cost-effectively? An interactive event format brought representatives from industry and humanitarian aid organisations and DLR researchers together to discuss this topic. A new technology demonstrator and almost four years of research results were presented at the Symposium on Automated Low-Altitude Air Delivery in Braunschweig.##markend##
The media has been reporting on the delivery of parcels using small, unmanned aircraft for some time. DLR has been researching cargo drones for four years, devoting its attention to larger payloads – up to one tonne. This is where it starts getting interesting, especially for transport between factories and time-critical delivery of large spare parts or humanitarian supplies. At the beginning of the Automated Low Altitude Air Delivery (ALAADy) project in 2016, we developed the following vision:
Almost four years have passed since then. In the meantime, we have not only designed concepts for this technology but also developed and built a technology demonstrator with a payload capacity of 200 kilograms. The ALAADy demonstrator is one of the largest civilian drones in Europe. During the project, a total of eight DLR facilities contributed their expertise and the entire team is very proud of the results achieved. So, we issued invitations to attend a symposium in Braunschweig on 6 November 2019, to share the results with potential users, manufacturers and the scientific community. In total, 100 participants accepted the invitation. We welcomed guests from the UN World Food Programme, Wings for Aid, Volocopter, Robert Bosch, the DRF Luftrettung (DRF Air Rescue) and many more. The aim of the symposium was to present the project results achieved so far. At the same time, it was the starting signal for the preparation of the first cross-country flights and a longer-term trial operation of the ALAADy demonstrator.
In addition to presentations, the event format focused on personal exchanges between visitors and researchers. Posters and exhibits showed details of the project. Aspects from take-off to landing of these transport drones could be explored and discussed. What, for example, do the take-off and landing sites for such a drone look like, and how can the drones be integrated into the logistics chains of airports or in areas with scarce infrastructure? Once the drone has taken off and is en route, it must be integrated into the airspace with other users. The ALAADy drone flies as low as possible to avoid the majority of air traffic. Additional infrastructure enables coordination between manned and unmanned aircraft. Appropriate data link technologies to enable command and control of the drone were presented on posters. The participants followed flights in a virtual reality simulation to obtain a visual impression of such drone operations.
All these questions are embedded in a novel process to ensure the safety of drone operations. In this context, an automatic route planning system not only identifies the shortest route to the destination, but also selects routes in such a way that operational safety is maximised. In ALAADy, the foundations have been laid to automatically monitor the safety of the drones during future flights.
What role do different aircraft configurations play and what advantages and disadvantages do they have? Such fundamental questions were considered, as well as more detailed ones. The engine type is an example. Are conventional internal combustion engines suitable? Are electric or hybrid-electric propulsion systems an option? A fuel cell stack on display invited lively discussions. The technology demonstrators and experiments have been derived from this configuration study. In presentations, we have revealed details from flight tests conducted with various demonstrators. For example, data for concept evaluation were collected during simulated real-life missions to deliver humanitarian aid, and experience was accumulated.