In the Air2X project, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), together with ADAC Luftrettung and the companies NXP Semiconductors Germany and Consider IT, has developed a concept for safer and faster helicopter rescue missions in environments such as motorways or rural roads. The partners demonstrated that this concept works in practice during a live demonstration, a first of its kind, on 13 October 2021 at the Cruise Terminal in Hamburg-Steinwerder. The demonstration took place as part of the ITS World Congress, which is being held in Hamburg from 11 to 15 October.
The focus is on communications between helicopters, networked vehicles and drones, also known as 'Air2X communications'. The project partners employ the ITS-G5 radio standard used by networked vehicles. Using a compact radio transmitter on board the helicopter, the crew first sends a signal to drones in the vicinity to clear the airspace for the rescue mission. They then inform any networked vehicles in the immediate vicinity of the incident about the planned landing site. These vehicles then slow down, stop and form a barrier for all following vehicles, creating safe landing site. The helicopter crew can act independently of the rescue personnel on the ground and can reach any casualties much faster. At the same time, safety is increased for the rescue services in the air and on the ground and also for third parties.
DLR mission for the future – bringing together and managing traffic on the roads and in low-altitude airspace
Tomorrow's mobility will be multimodal – it will network and combine many different modes of transport. "If we want to change mobility in the future, we have to think ahead today when it comes to technological and regulatory issues," says Karsten Lemmer, Member of the DLR Executive Board responsible for Innovation, Transfer and Scientific Infrastructure. “This is why we bring together cutting-edge research, industry and users with Air2X. DLR research itself contributes knowledge that encompasses the entire transport system. It has expertise on highly automated and networked vehicles, on vehicle communications and traffic psychology, but also knowledge and experience in the field of low-altitude air traffic and its management."
Almost production ready vehicle technology meets established and new airspace users
"On the vehicle side, we are working with almost production-ready technology in the Air2X project. We already send standardised messages via radio. These contain the information about the rescue mission. The vehicle has to process this information and react accordingly," explains Project Manager Maik Bargmann from the DLR Institute of Transportation Systems. In the live demonstration, the DLR research vehicle reacted fully automatically to the message, braking and stopping. "In the near future, the vehicles that have the appropriate hardware and software could display a warning message such as: 'Rescue mission ahead, please brake'. "To implement the Air2X concept, the team had to master regulatory aspects in addition to technological challenges. This included the release of the radio frequencies for this area of application. In general, the lead times here are long and the competition for frequency allocations is high – important factors for the continued work and practical implementation of this approach.
In contrast, drones are much less regulated and standardised. From a safety perspective, they pose a major challenge; a collision between a drone and a helicopter can have serious consequences. The DLR researchers therefore focused on different approaches to sending drones appropriate information about the rescue mission. The aim is for the drones to clear the affected airspace or land in a controlled and safe manner. Special research drones from the DLR Institute of Flight Systems were also used in the practical test. In addition, the Institute of Flight Guidance is involved in the Air2X project and provided support at the regulatory level during the ITS World Congress.
Landing on motorways and roads – a particular challenge for helicopter crews
In 2020, ADAC Luftrettung carried out approximately 2500 landings on roads. Including other rescue organisations, there are at least 4000 such missions in Germany every year. The aim is not only to recover and transport seriously injured people, but also to provide rapid emergency medical care on site. "We are often the first on the scene of an accident with our rescue helicopters. The traffic is usually still moving, and the crew is dependent on it stopping of its own accord to clear a landing area or the police arriving and closing the lanes," says Daniel Hecht, a pilot and Regional Flight Operations Manager at ADAC Luftrettung, describing the challenge. Where the helicopter lands is decided by the pilot at short notice and depends on the relevant circumstances. "DLR approached us with the idea of effectively automatically creating a safe landing area at the push of a button. We are of course very interested in such a technological solution to make our rescue missions even faster and safer in the future."
Before the first live demonstration, however, the project partners first had to test the installation of the required hardware, network all the components and determine the necessary range of the radio transmitters and receivers in initial flight tests. "The field of rescue mobility is very practical and understandable as a use case. It can be a pioneer and show what is possible with Air2X technology," explains Bargmann. A follow-up project is already being planned to further study the interaction between pilots and the system. The transmission system will also be installed in a DLR helicopter.