On 14 February 2019, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) presented some of its planned research and management activities for 2019 at its annual press conference in Berlin. Pascale Ehrenfreund, Chair of the DLR Executive Board addressed the challenges and goals for the coming year. She also presented research projects from the fields of digitalisation and security – the interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral areas in which DLR researchers are working.
Professor Ehrenfreund stressed the importance of research into Artificial Intelligence and big and smart data: "Scientific findings form the basis for all subsequent applications. Groundbreaking interdisciplinary work is necessary to harness novel technologies and open up new fields of research – from quantum technology and unmanned flight to new thermal storage power plants. This will be made possible by seven new DLR institutes and facilities, the construction of which will commence in 2019."
Electric, unmanned, digitalised – three attributes of current DLR aviation research
This year, DLR aviation researchers will continue to develop concepts for new propulsion technologies with a view to making future air transport quieter and emission-free. Electric propulsion systems have the potential to reduce noise, be energy efficient and climate neutral, all at once. DLR aeronautics and energy researchers flight tested the first four passenger, fuel cell-powered aircraft back in 2016. Test flights of the next evolutionary stage of this aircraft are planned for 2019. In addition to various energy sources and propulsion technologies, scientists are also working on new operating models and aircraft configurations, such as distributed propulsion systems.
Whether they are used for urban freight transport, disaster relief or future passenger transport in the form of air taxis, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) are on the threshold of taking on a major economic role in the civil aviation sector. DLR is working towards the establishment of a national test centre for unmanned aerial vehicles – the first in Europe – in order to advance the development of new technologies for safe flight, precise positioning and stable data connections to ground stations.
DLR aeronautics research is also taking the next steps towards the digitalisation of aviation. Virtual products – highly accurate and true-to-life representations of aircraft over their entire lifecycle – will make both the development and the maintenance of aviation systems more efficient and thus more cost-effective in the future.
X-ray astronomy, new space institutes and a 'Mole' burrowing into Mars
Four of the seven new DLR institutes and facilities being established from 2019 will be dedicated to space research and technology. The DLR Institute of Space Weather is to be located at the site in Neustrelitz. Space weather refers to conditions in the Sun (in the solar wind) and within our planet's magnetosphere, ionosphere and thermosphere that can have an impact on the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based systems and infrastructure, and which can endanger human life. It can lead to the disruption of global communications systems and even lead to power outages. The institute is intended to create an interface with relevant user groups and issue early warnings to infrastructure at risk.
DLR is expanding its expertise in the field of application-oriented sensor technology for future Earth observation missions and navigation systems through the establishment of its Institute of Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensor Systems. Here, the focus will be on the further development of the space-based precision measurement of Earth using new, highly accurate sensors.
At the Ulm site, the new DLR Institute of Quantum Technology will work on quantum science and develop key technologies for use in space. This includes research on and the development of instruments for measuring location, time, frequency, acceleration and rotation, as well as tools for quantum communication.
The aim of the Galileo Competence Center, which will be established at the DLR site in Oberpfaffenhofen site, is to develop new concepts and technologies for the next generation of global navigation satellite systems. There, ideas will be tested in the laboratory, developed into prototypes and validated as technology demonstrators. The researchers' work will contribute to the further development of the Galileo system and will pave the way for new applications.
On 26 November 2018, NASA's InSight lander touched down safely on Mars. On board was DLR's Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) – also known as the 'Mole'. On 12 February 2019, HP3 was set down on the surface using the lander’s robotic arm. Step-by-step operational preparations are in progress, On 23 February, it will begin to 'hammer' its way into the Martian subsurface to reach a depth of up to five metres over the following weeks. The instrument will repeatedly carry out measurements at different depths. The main objective of the experiment is to measure the heat flow beneath the surface and determine the thermal state of the interior of Mars. The scientists hope to use the data to verify models of the evolution of Mars, its chemical composition and its internal structure, and thus draw conclusions about the early development of the Red Planet, and also about Earth.
The main focus of the DLR Space Administration in Bonn will be the European Space Agency (ESA) Council Meeting at Ministerial Level, which will be held in Seville in late November 2019. The DLR Space Administration is responsible for Germany’s contributions to ESA, on behalf of the federal government. The ESA Council Meeting at Ministerial Level will make strategic decisions on matters including launchers, exploration and application programmes. It will also more specifically define the working relationship between ESA and the European Union.
The Space Administration will also be looking into application and transfer topics, including the benefits of space for broadband expansion. The Sixth 'Satellite Communications in Germany' conference to be held on 14 and 15 May 2019 in Bonn will explore this topic in depth. Another highlight will be the German-Russian Spectrum-Roentgen-Gamma (SRG) mission with the eROSITA X-ray telescope developed and built in Germany, which will be launched on 21 June to search for dark energy. The cross-industry gatherings, which will this year focus on 'Space and Medicine/Medical Technology', will continue.
Thermal storage as a key technology for the Energy Transition
Using innovative technologies in its energy research, DLR is contributing to the success of fossil fuel phase-out and the Energy Transition. The focus is on the generation of energy from renewable resources, its storage and finally the demand-oriented provision of energy for the power, heat and mobility sectors.
To meet the current challenges of coal phase-out, DLR is developing a concept for converting coal-fired power stations into storage power plants. The key here is a thermal storage facility using molten salt, in which power from renewable energy sources can be temporarily stored and then retrieved as required without emitting carbon dioxide. This replaces the previous coal storage and combustion section. In addition to increasing security of supply and grid stability, such storage power plants maintain jobs for power plant personnel and the local supply industry, and enable the continued use of existing coal-fired power station components. A pilot project for the 'third life' of coal-fired power plants is in preparation.
This year, a new DLR Institute for Low Carbon Dioxide Industrial Processes is being set up in the Lausitz lignite mining area with sites in Cottbus and Zittau/Görlitz. In future, high-temperature heat pumps will be developed here that are required for the conversion of power into heat in large storage systems and thus represent an industrial-scale option for combined heat and power generation. For non-electrifiable industrial processes, new methods will ensure lower emissions.
To generate power from solar energy, DLR will commission a new type of molten salt parabolic trough test facility in Portugal in 2019. With curved mirrors, the solar radiation is concentrated on absorber tubes, in which molten salt stores the heat with which electricity is finally generated in the power plant using steam. Compared with conventional thermal oil, the molten salt is particularly resistant to temperatures as high as 560 degrees Celsius, which increases the efficiency of solar power plants.
DLR has complemented its energy research with in-depth expertise in matters regarding the energy system. The focus is on the challenge of designing stable and efficient energy systems despite weather-dependent decentralised generation. To support this research, a laboratory for networked energy systems is being set up to test the linking of various conventional and renewable energy sources with different power, heat and mobility users to form a stable energy network.
The transport of the future is automated and networked
Digitalisation is essential for making the mobility of people and goods safer, more efficient, more comfortable and more environment friendly. The transport of the future will be characterised by the automation and networking of means of mobility and infrastructure.
With its Niedersachsen Test Field, DLR is establishing a test environment in Lower Saxony for automated driving in close cooperation with scientific and industrial partners. Equipping a stretch of motorway with recording technology to observe traffic events and with communications technology for digitalising the infrastructure is key here. Complementary simulation environments will be created to enable the consistent design and testing of automated driving functions at all stages of the development process. The Niedersachsen Test Field will be operational from the end of 2019.
DLR, together with 17 partners, is working on the development of quality criteria and the corresponding test methods to ensure the safety of automated driving functions within the PEGASUS project of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi). PEGASUS thus provides an important basis for the market launch of automated vehicles. The project, with a total duration of three years and a funding volume of 34.5 million euro, will come to an end in June 2019. The results will be presented at a closing event with talks and driving demonstrations.
In order for new technologies such as automation and networking to become effective as part of new mobility concepts, knowledge about mobility behaviour is essential. Here, scenarios are identified in which automation and networking as well as other technological and operational measures can be used effectively. Even before their introduction, possible measures can be evaluated in this way according to various criteria, for example with regard to their environmental effects, their effects on the traffic flow and with regard to user acceptance.
In 2019 DLR will initiate operations at the MovingLab. Here, data from volunteer users can be collected digitally using a smartphone app or a GPS logger instead of the questionnaire that has been used up until now. The acquired movement data enables the automatic determination of the essential characteristics of journeys, such as the start and end times, the exact route and the means of transport used. On the basis of this data, completely new mobility concepts can be developed that meet people's needs – also using automation and networking.
Completely new mobility concepts are also supported by DLR's MAUDE modular vehicle concept. This is a new, driverless electric vehicle. It is based on the separation of the drive module and the transport capsule. The drive module contains the powertrain, batteries and control system and can pick up and carry different capsules for each transport process. Different capsules can be used flexibly for a variety of passenger and freight transport tasks. The system will be applicable to road and rail vehicles, cable cars and even air transport.
Safety in ports and the key issue of AI
In 2019, within the AIS-Plus maritime safety research project, a system for better position reporting for ships in areas of high traffic density and poor transmission conditions will be further developed, with a view to increasing safety at sea and in ports in particular. The aim is to achieve a complete maritime situation picture using new technology developed by DLR. This includes the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms.
AI is also playing an increasingly important role in many other DLR research areas. The vast amounts of data from current and future satellite-based Earth observation missions would not be able to be processed without the application of AI. It also opens up completely new possibilities for deriving valuable information from satellite data that would otherwise not be possible with conventional methods. AI will also become increasingly important for the intelligent networking of future automated vehicles and energy systems.
One example of this from the field of space research, which could also be used on Earth, is DLR's humanoid robot Agile Justin. In AI research, learning is the basic principle underlying autonomous systems. Methods from Deep Learning and Deep Reinforcement, whereby behaviour is learned on the basis of the receipt or absence of a 'reward', are used to develop strategies for executing tasks and adapting to situations in a complex environment.
Justin's basic skills already come close to the versatility of humans. It has successfully completed a number of tasks, such as skilfully 'building' a frame structure, catching balls thrown to it using highly dynamic movements and recognising a material by touching the surface with his finger, thus displaying high sensitivity. In future, intelligent robots will play an important role in space and planetary exploration, and will also have significant applications on Earth, such as caring for the elderly or people with physical impairments.