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New level in the air: 5G technology for drone logistics

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In conversation with Stephan Berkowitz, Chief Technology Officer at Third Element Aviation GmbH, Michael Thärigen, Managing Director of GTS Systems and Consulting GmbH, and Norman Koerschulte, authorized signatory at Karl Koerschulte GmbH.

New level in the air: 5G technology for drone logistics

© Noah Feichter, TH Köln

Mr. Berkowitz, what does potential communication between drones look like, and what requirements does this have for the digital solutions behind it?

When drones communicate with each other, they must function as both transmitter and receiver. This can currently be done, for example, via D2X, a special WLAN variant that is reasonably resistant to shadowing and can radio "around the corner" to a certain extent. D2X can theoretically reach about six kilometers with data transmission rates that would (theoretically) also be suitable for narrower video transmissions.

There is the introduced technology FLARM, which is installed e.g. in helicopters. A rescue helicopter (which has a very high priority and usually does not disclose its flight paths) transmits a permanent signal so that all drones, which in turn can receive FLARM, can or must escape from the path. As a rule, the drones then land instantaneously. Logically, this is not bidirectional communication. There are alternatives to D2X and FLARM with similar functionality.

Furthermore, LTE and 5G can (presumably) be used to communicate directly via the local radio masts. The keyword for LTE is AFP. This is not really direct communication between the drones, but there would be no functional difference.

Significant requirements for the digital solutions are: A reasonably moderate power consumption of the technologies used; the smaller drones are, the more the collected power consumption of additional components becomes important. In addition, the components must also be installable if they have to be used directly in the drones, or at least attachable. Components from the automotive industry weighing 500 g etc. are generally not usable.

There needs to be some kind of common sense between the different drone manufacturers/suppliers. "We interpret behaviors of others since XX.XX.202X now so and so" makes sense. For example, there are commands in the MAVLink communication protocol for this that clearly describe positions of a drone. Protocol and data descriptions should be supported synchronously by all participants.

In this context, 5G technology makes ad hoc corridors possible. What is it all about and what challenges does it pose, especially with regard to future implementation in regular airspace/traffic?

5G divides the air into "air boxes" (quadruples). Depending on the expansion stage or release version of 5G, the quadruples can range in size from 3 x 3 x 3 m to 10 x 10 x 10 cm. This means the discretization of the air and is a very good basis for human or machine planning. Trajectory planning can use introduced or even potentially AI-assisted algorithms. Quadruples can be reserved in advance for flights or accessed ad hoc by changes in the situation picture. The challenges here are not reserving quadruples unnecessarily or not releasing them (when will they be released?) and fine-tuning flight priorities. Communication between the flight units directly could also be useful here.

The important thing here is to be able to fly use cases - which have to be executed exactly as they were planned - without them being unnecessarily prevented from being executed by flights that are more flexible in principle. To this end, a system must be created that strikes a fair balance that is acceptable to all participants.

What possibilities can 5G open up very specifically in drone logistics, what advantages do you expect (e.g., weight reduction?)

Many of the technologies just mentioned will not necessarily become obsolete as a result of 5G, but could take second place to 5G and thus only be used as an option. This could eliminate components, maintenance on obsolete software components and data fusion. This would save setup and maintenance costs and weight. Saved weight, moreover, means more flight time and/or more payload. A common sense among logisticians is expected to increase convergence among the various drone delivery systems.

How exactly can the new technology lead to cost savings through greater efficiency?

Through better rail planning, more or optimized or more on-time flights can be carried out.

A common sense among logistics providers and strong convergence make coordination among them easier. In addition, market entry is easier.

And the possible elimination of previous components and their fragmented technology saves on components, know-how retention and maintenance costs.

Drones in air traffic are a hot topic: How can safety and flexibility be reconciled? How can 5G technology provide support here?

Any system in the air benefits in principle from a) knowing exactly where it is, b) being able to exchange a lot of data with other participants when needed, and c) being able to transmit larger video and data streams to ground stations or control rooms. All of these characteristics pay into a flight system's awareness in space and positive inferences from it. If I know exactly where others are, how I will behave, and how other systems will behave, I can determine very precise deductions for my behavior. If everything is to be one dimension fuzzier and more ambiguous, it may follow that ten aircraft systems may be in airspace X, or possibly 100 or 1,000 with more precise awareness.

Increased safety is a direct consequence of increased awareness and larger data streams that are possible. Increased flexibility is a direct result of increased security, among other things. If there is a high level of uncertainty, for example, very large protection zones must be drawn around areas and individual flights, or flights must even be flown off serially one after the other.

Mr. Thärigen, this is where you come in, so to speak. What role does GTS play in the Drone4Parcel5G project?

GTS ensures that incoming transport orders from the two application project partners, i.e. the Koerschulte company and the drone operator Third Element, are scheduled and forwarded to Third Element's drone control system. We also receive the actual data generated during the execution and visualize it in the planning application. The TransIT system provided by GTS is thus the data intermediary between the systems of the other partners.

What factors in particular are critical to efficient route planning for drone deliveries?

Crucial for efficient route planning is a precise overview of the existing resources, i.e. primarily drones and loading stations, and the orders to be scheduled. Only then can an efficient plan be created in which resources are optimally utilized. From the perspective of route planning, the very fast acquisition of real-time information is of particular importance so that it can be taken into account in further planning. The TransIT software system is able to take real-time information into account for further planning and thus differs from other planning systems that generate rather static plans.

What does this system do exactly?

The TransIT planning system is responsible for the automatic scheduling of orders. It decides with which drone and at what time a specific job is to be carried out. TransIT can take into account all the restrictions that are necessary for planning and thus guarantees optimal planning. In addition, GTS extends the existing system to include fully automatic operation, which only needs to be monitored by a user. Appropriate systems are also available for this monitoring.

Mr. Koerschulte, as a technical wholesaler, i.e. operating in the B2B sector, you launched your first delivery drone more than two years ago. Since then, you have been developing a logistics concept based on it. Why did you decide to go down this route?

This has an acute and a structural background. An acute problem for Lüdenscheid, where we have our headquarters, and the entire Sauerland region is the closure of the Rahmede viaduct on the A45. From a logistics point of view, this is a medium catastrophe. The structural challenge is the shortage of skilled workers. It is becoming increasingly difficult for us to find drivers, especially for the last mile to the customer. And since, in my opinion, large-scale autonomous driving will still take quite a while, we have set our sights on an alternative future technology that can be implemented more quickly. At Koerschulte, we are convinced that we can make very good use of the technology. Our key question: How can we usefully network our digital ordering tools for customers with delivery drones?

So today you see drone transports as a practically implementable solution - what were the milestones on the way to this realization?

I came into contact with this topic back in 2004. My background: I have a professional background in aviation and worked for the Lufthansa Group for seven years. Back then, I learned that - in purely technical terms - pilots are no longer needed at all to take off, fly and land large passenger aircraft safely. And that was, as I said, more than 15 years ago. The same is true for drones: Their operation was never really a technical problem, but always "only" an organizational one. In recent years, we've looked around in the U.S. and also in Tel Aviv and picked up many exciting ideas. Thanks to the EU's drone regulation, we finally have a certain regulatory framework since 2021 - that was certainly one of the most important milestones to date. Now it depends on how this framework develops.

Why is 5G technology so important for transporting goods using drones?

The more data I can transmit per second, the better. The drones are equipped with a forward-facing camera and a downward-facing camera. These deliver live images to the operator on the ground. He can do little with a "jumble of pixels" - he needs pin-sharp images to safely monitor the automatically controlled flight. This is where 5G technology helps immensely. After all, we're not planning with a single drone, but with entire swarms.

What is the actual practical status at your company?

So far, these are still mostly intralogistics projects, limited to our area. For the city center, we need the so-called SAIL3 permit. We are in close contact with the German Federal Aviation Authority. It is not unlikely that we will be the first company in Europe to receive this permit. But as it is with pioneers: We have to go through everything from front to back and dozens of times to get the "okay" from the authorities. And that takes time. However, the German Federal Aviation Authority is expected to certify the system before the end of the year. The first drones could then be flying in Lüdenscheid and the surrounding area. We have 3,000 customers in the region. Each route has to be approved individually. We have submitted the first ten routes.

In your view, what are the biggest advantages of drone delivery in practice?

The ability to deliver many packages with few personnel. One person can monitor up to ten drones at the same time. As a wholesaler for craftsmen and industrial companies, for example in the areas of occupational safety and fastening technology, we mainly deliver small parts. The packages weigh a maximum of ten kilograms. We would be allowed to move 25 kg through the air with the existing rules. As a user, we bring this experience into Drone4Parcel5G and, conversely, naturally benefit from the knowledge gained from the project.

Thank you for your interesting insights.


Under the consortium leadership of Prof. Dr. Andreas Schwung and Prof. Dr. Stefan Lier of the South Westphalia University of Applied Sciences (FH SWF), the future of drone logistics will initially be researched until the end of 2023. Through the use of 5G, drones should be able to transport goods in a highly automated manner. Project partners include Third Element Aviation, Noweda, GTS Systems, the KL Group, Infineon Technologies, TKG SWF and wfg Kreis Soest. As a research project in the second 5G.NRW round, it is being funded by the state of NRW with a total of around 1.6 million euros. Lukas Ostermann from the FH SWF is responsible for project management.