January 26, 2017 | Highlights of DLR's research in 2017

A greenhouse in space, quieter aircraft, and cargo that flies to its destination on its own

  • At the New Year's Press Conference, DLR will present the highlights of its research for 2017 in the areas of aeronautics, space, energy, transport and security.
  • With its research activities, DLR is oriented towards social issues such as climate change, sustainable energy use and intelligent mobility.

Climate change, digitalisation, Industry 4.0 and transformation of the energy and traffic systems – these central societal responsibilities will be at the heart of the research conducted by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) in 2017. DLR will present the focus of this year's research and some selected projects at the New Year’s press conference on 26 January 2017 in Berlin.

Knowledge for tomorrow

"DLR's scientific work is geared towards the needs of our modern society, such as digitalisation, the handling of large data volumes and tackling global climate change. Our fundamental research contributes to the transfer of scientific results into technological applications in the areas of intelligent mobility and sustainable energy use," says Pascale Ehrenfreund, Chair of the DLR Executive Board. At its sites, DLR cooperates with regional and local industry as well as other research institutions. This cooperation also focuses on technology transfer, that is, transferring scientific results into technological and industrial applications. In pursuing these future-oriented research topics, DLR sees itself as a driving force and facilitator of societal change.


In the following, you will find a selection of DLR research topics for 2017 according to research area:


ALAADy: Unmanned airfreight transport

Parcel delivery services are already testing smaller drones for practical applications. DLR is taking things one step further and will design and test an unmanned aircraft for the first time in the project ALAADy (Automated Low Altitude Air Delivery). It is intended for the transport of humanitarian goods or urgently required spare parts with a payload of up to one ton. DLR researchers are particularly interested in the safety and economic benefits of such a system. The freight drone should be able to perform demanding flights at very low altitudes and must be suitable for integration within the current air transportation system in the long term. To achieve this, scientists plan to use the new regulations for unmanned aircraft recently published by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to analyse whether automated transportation systems of this magnitude can be implemented from a technical perspective and under the present regulatory regime. Extensive testing in a drone simulator is planned for the summer of 2017, and initial field tests have been earmarked for the end of 2017.

Noise reduction in short and medium-haul aircraft

As part of its ongoing research, DLR has developed a variety of noise reduction technologies for retrofitting current short and medium-haul aircraft. These are, for example, covers on the landing gear, measures against spoiler noise on the landing flaps and modified contours of the rear nozzle edge on the engines. DLR researchers, for the first time ever, are planning to explore the potential benefits of deploying all of these noise reduction technologies together through flyover measurements using the research aircraft A320 ATRA (Advanced Technology and Research Aircraft). The necessary modifications of the A320 ATRA will be carried out from March 2017 under the leadership of the DLR Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology in Braunschweig die nötigen Umbauarbeiten am ATRA statt. Die Flugversuche selbst sind ab Mai 2017 geplant.


New satellite platform 'Made in Germany'

The first telecommunications satellite developed and built in Germany in the last 25 years is scheduled for launch into space: weighing three tons and therefore comparatively light for a telecommunications satellite, the Hispasat 36W-1 will be launched to space from the European Spaceport in French Guiana in the early morning hours of 28 January 2017. It will operate in geo-stationary orbit at an altitude of 36,000 kilometres. The satellite by the Spanish telecommunications provider Hispasat is the first in the SmallGEO programme run by Germany. It was built on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA) by the German space company OHB in Bremen. Tesat Spacecom GmbH from Backnang is responsible for the satellite payload. The DLR Space Administration supports the SmallGEO programme with roughly 150 million euro (42.5 percent of the programme) with funds from the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy. Germany has therefore regained its system capability to build satellites in the commercially important and growing telecommunications market. Moreover, the SmallGEO platform can be used flexibly and is intended, among other things, for deployment to carry the ESA EDRS-C – a satellite belonging to the European Data Relay System – and Electra missions into space. The Electra mission is powered exclusively by electricity and is scheduled for launch in 2022. There are also plans to use the new platform for the German technology testing satellite Heinrich Hertz (planned launch: 2020).

Eu:CROPIS: Cosmic greenhouses

The DLR satellite Eu:CROPIS (Euglena and Combined Regenerative Organic-food Production in Space) is scheduled for launch in the second half of the year. This will mark the maiden flight of a DLR experiment on board a Falcon 9 by the private aerospace company Space-X. During its mission, Eu:CROPIS will rotate around its own axis at an altitude of 600 kilometres, initially producing the gravitational force of the Moon within it for six months, and will then replicate Martian gravity for another six months. During this time, tomato seeds will germinate and grow into small space tomatoes under the watchful eye of 16 cameras. An entire group of microorganisms contained in a trickle filter will use synthetic urine to produce a nourishing fertiliser for the tomatoes; euglena will also be transported on board to supply the hermetic system with additional protection against excess ammonia and to produce oxygen. The satellite will be controlled by the German Space Operations Center (GSOC), which is operated by DLR in Oberpfaffenhofen near Munich, while the ground station in Weilheim, among others, will handle communications.

Climate protection – Stronger cooperation with the United Nations

In 2016, DLR organised the 'DLR Space Operations and Astronaut Training (RB)' conference on the issue of climate change in Cologne – with support from the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). DLR and UNOOSA see the urgent need to continue raising awareness of climate change. Another conference is planned in cooperation with the UN, which will be held in Bonn in the autumn of 2017. On this occasion, DLR will present scientific solutions and methods to meet the targets defined at the UN climate conferences COP 21 in Paris and COP 22 in Marrakesh. DLR is convinced that climate change, the associated reduction in atmospheric greenhouse gases and disaster management are the most important societal topics of the future, and is committed to providing solutions. For instance, improved sensor and satellite technologies can be used to better and more precisely monitor the climate and the measures undertaken by partner countries to reduce their carbon footprint. In addition, the International Space Station can also be used for remote atmospheric sensing. The synergy between satellite and ISS-based remote sensing presents immense potential for the future, for instance in the validation and calibration of data.

'Aerospace on the move!'

The DLR Space Administration created the INNOSpace initiative three years ago in response to the commercialisation of the aerospace sector and the increasingly close ties between aerospace and non-aerospace industries. The initiative ‘Aerospace on the move!’ has now followed in cooperation with the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy: the clear purpose here is to foster strategic interaction between the aerospace and mobility industries. Aerospace already provides infrastructures that can be used as the basis for applications in the field of mobility. The aerospace sector can also help to develop and enable solutions for future challenges within mobility. Together, aerospace and mobility will be able to penetrate new markets to create added value in downstream segments. The 'Aerospace on the move!' initiative will be launched by Brigitte Zypries, Parliamentary State Secretary at BMWi and Federal Government Coordinator of German Aerospace Policy, and by Gerd Gruppe, DLR Executive Board Member responsible for the The German Space Agency at DLR, on 27 March 2017 at a conference in Bonn.


Automatic driving is approaching

Automatic and autonomous driving are currently among the most discussed topics in road transport. Here, the long-term goal is not to support the driver, but rather to allow the car to take over all of the functions involved in operating the vehicle. DLR is cooperating with partners from industry and research within the BMWi-funded PEGASUS project to put automatic driving functions through their paces and hence to enable their approval. Among other things, the project will research and determine which functions automatic vehicles need to take over, and how system safety can be tested reliably. The scientists will present their first project findings at the end of 2017. In this respect, DLR is contributing its experience and expertise in digital, highly precise maps and technical measurement infrastructure to assist in simulations and drive tests under real conditions. The scientists also use the transport and test infrastructure provided by the Application Platform for Intelligent Mobility (AIM). The AIM communications technology and sensor systems primarily available inside the Braunschweig city limits will also be expanded in 2017 by building a test field along main and interstate roads in Lower Saxony. The 2.5 million euros in financial support provided by the Federal State of Lower Saxony and the contribution made by DLR in the same amount, are therefore important contributions for securing and thus accelerating the market introduction of automated and networked road vehicles. This results in a powerful test field that is closely linked to other national test field activities (for example, Digital Test Field A9) and initiatives at the European level.

High-speed freight transport – NGT CARGO

Quick and quiet rail transport of high-quality and time-sensitive goods is the aim of the NGT CARGO project, in which DLR is transferring its research insight acquired from the ultrahigh speed passenger train NGT HST and the high-speed shuttle train NGT LINK to a fast and quiet freight train. Its purpose, for example, will be to connect freight hubs at airports, logistics terminals in megacities and individual railway sidings. The NGT CARGO is able to travel on the same high-speed routes as the NGT HST, either in mixed traffic during the day or at night when only cargo trains are on the rails. The concept, including the drive/brake and loading concept, will be presented in the spring of 2017. The drive concept underlying NGT CARGO plans to use an inductive drive system without overhead wires on ultra-high-speed routes, and a telescopic current collector on existing routes where conventional electrification is installed. The individual NGT CARGO cars have autonomous driving capability on their own or as a group, which means that an individual CARGO carriage with one or two traction units can be assembled into a complete, autonomously driving cargo train, which is then managed via a central control centre.

VEU – The effects of traffic on the environment, society and the economy

In future, hugely conflicting goals will affect the mobility and transport sectors. On the one hand, there is societal and economic development that is inconceivable without an efficient transport system. On the other hand, traffic significantly affects people and the environment in many places. The traffic system of the future must therefore guarantee an extremely high performance on a local, national and international level, while at the same time harmonising with the defined objectives of the energy transition and climate protection. The VEU project (traffic development and the environment) aims to model these complex interactions, including the current and future causes of traffic and their impact on the environment, the economy and society as a whole. Through the models, decision-makers will be able to better assess the impact of technologies and regulatory measures on mobility systems. The results of the project are expected to be presented in June.


The largest artificial Sun in the world

The DLR Institute of Solar Research will inaugurate the world's largest artificial Sun, the high-flux solar simulator SynLight, on 23 March 2017. 150 short-arc lamps with a light output of a large cinema projector are installed in the system. They generate a light intensity equivalent to at least 10,000 times the natural solar radiation hitting the surface of the Earth. DLR solar researchers can use the artificial Sun to conduct experiments irrespective of weather conditions and seasonal fluctuations, and hence to achieve faster progress in their research. The focus in the coming years will be placed on the development of manufacturing methods for solar fuels. Researchers and industrial companies in the solar thermal power station industry or from aeronautics and space will also find ideal conditions at SynLight to conduct tests on full-size components. Engineers from the DLR Institute of Solar Research designed the system and will assist users in the preparation and execution of tests.

Hydrogen from sunlight

Solar power is by far the most widely available energy resource on Earth. In turn, hydrogen possesses a high energy density and is therefore an outstanding source of energy. Burning hydrogen also produces just water and heat. Researchers from the DLR Institute of Solar Research have developed a solar power plant, HYDROSOL, that can generate 750 kilowatts of power. In the plant an electrochemical reaction (redox reaction) occurs whereby solar energy is used to produce hydrogen. The reactor will be inaugurated at the Plataforma Solar de Almeria in southern Spain in 2017. This reactor builds on the first one of its kind, which researchers used back in 2006 as a direct method of manufacturing hydrogen. The innovation received the DESCARTES Prize from the European Commission in recognition of this achievement.

TESIS, the world's largest industrial test facility for molten salt storage to start operation

Storage systems will play a key role in the supply of energy in the future. The hunt is on for a storage unit that is able to absorb large quantities of energy and release it again as required in a cost-effective manner. Molten salt can fulfil the role of an energy storage material in power plants and industrial applications. The same principle is applied in everyday thermos flasks, which use the storage medium water at temperatures of up to 100 degrees Celsius. Liquid salt mixtures can be used at significantly higher temperatures in a range of 180 to 560 degrees Celsius. Molten salts are already used commercially in solar power plants. For instance, 30,000 tons of molten salt in a 50-megawatt power plant help to ensure that the power station can continue supplying electricity in the evening hours. In addition to commercial applications in solar thermal power plants, the technology also provides significant storage potential in the energy transition. Molten salt can be used in industrial processes that produce waste heat, which can be fed back into the system at a later stage. To enable this, researchers at the DLR Institute of Engineering Thermodynamics intend to continue developing the molten salt technology, and for this purpose will begin operating the test facility TESIS near Cologne in June. The aim is to bring the innovative energy storage system to market maturity in cooperation with industrial partners. The test facility was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) and is part of the interdisciplinary research facility CeraStorE.

DLR will also present current research projects in the energy field at the Hannover Fair from 24-28 April 2017.


DLR supports the ISAR aid organisation

Quick and efficient assistance is crucial after natural disasters or emergencies. This is why DLR has joined forces with the aid organisation International Search and Rescue Germany (I.S.A.R.) to develop new services and applications in the area of crisis and disaster management. Employees at the DLR Institute of Optical Sensor Systems will therefore be part of the I.S.A.R. team taking part in the international United Nations rescue exercise ACHILLES in May 2017. DLR will use this opportunity to test a new prototype of the Modular Aerial Camera System (MACS) mounted on an unmanned aircraft. It will allow emergency services to generate maps of affected areas more quickly and to use the results for their missions directly after landing. I.S.A.R. Director Michael Lesmeister describes it as a milestone: "This will enable more efficient deployment of aid to victims. Until now we have landed in affected areas more or less blindly, as we did not know whether roads are passable, where large crowds of people were located or how many houses had collapsed, to name just a few issues." The new technology will provide an overview of emergency situations and guide rescue teams directly to those affected.

IoSiS – Imaging of Satellites in Space

Today, aerospace is one of the key and core competences of a modern industrial society. It has even become indispensable to individuals in everyday life, whether for weather forecasts, satellite television, global Internet availability, navigation, power supply or banking. Here, though, satellites continuously face the risk of colliding with other satellites or with space debris. Any protection for these systems can only work if all objects and processes unfolding in near-Earth space are monitored. For this purpose, knowledge and updates of the trajectories and properties of objects travelling in orbit is indispensable. Active satellites can therefore be manoeuvred to avoid collisions, among other things. In recent years, the DLR Microwaves and Radar Institute has built a radar system designed specifically for this purpose at its location in Weilheim as part of the IoSiS (Imaging of Satellites in Space) project. Theoretically, the system achieves a spatial resolution of up to three centimetres and is therefore able to deliver precise information on the condition of satellites and possible threats. A measurement campaign, scheduled for April until the end of June 2017, will investigate how the current data quality can be secured and further optimised in the future.


Dorothee Bürkle

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Media Relations, Energy and Transport Research