Scaling drone operations is very challenging; if you are wondering how to do it, Unisphere has the solution. Unisphere is a flight management platform that automates pilot activities of drone flight operations. This enables scalability in a safe and efficient manner. We talked to Dr. Christoph Selig, the CCO and co-founder, and he shared his insights on the drone industry. We discussed the future of cargo and passenger transport, social acceptance, and more.

Your background in entrepreneurship is impressive. You mentor start-ups and you did various research about the topic. How did drones come into the picture?

I've always been interested in new technologies and how innovation is changing our world. Parallel to my Ph.D. in Corporate Entrepreneurship, I was responsible for setting up the academic startup initiative, and in the course of this, I supported a variety of founders in the early stages of their startups. By a lucky coincidence, I met my co-founders Michael Anger and Christoph Schlettig at a startup event. Both were previously flight directors of the Solar Impulse project - the first solar-powered aircraft to circumnavigate the globe. With this knowledge of electric aircraft operation and its challenges, they were both motivated to make it available to the emerging drone and air taxi industry. This is how I first came into contact with the topic of unmanned aviation and electric flying and have now been working for 5 years on transferring pilot know-how into software to enable highly automated flight operations.

In your view, when AAM operations will kick-start in Europe, and what does the industry need to foster the adoption?

I think AAM in general is a term used for a variety of things and includes both urban air mobility (UAM) and regional air mobility, which makes it difficult to answer. If we talk about cargo transport, I think we will see a significant increase in flights and use cases in Europe over the next two years, as the technology is ready and regulations are moving quickly. For passenger transport, I believe that the first commercial flights will happen in the next few years but I expect the industry to take off within the next 3-5 years, as eVTOLs still need to be certified, the ground infrastructure is yet to be built, and the rather high costs linked to the initial pilot operation will lead to a relatively small group of customers.

Unisphere’s data-driven analytics solutions enable vertiport and air taxi companies in the decision-making process for Urban Air Mobility services. What information do you exactly provide?

Over the past years, we have developed our Smart 4D Trajectory, which is capable of creating a digital twin of a drone or air taxi flight and the automated evaluation of the feasibility and weather-related risks. Initially, we started to apply our technology to weather forecasts and observations to automate the pre-flight planning part of drone operations.

Applying this to historic weather data, allows us to understand the operational conditions an eVTOL would face and to evaluate how the weather would impact flight operations and service availability. Typical questions we are answering with this data-driven service are, i.e. which location has the highest service availability? What are key weather parameters limiting our future flight operations? Or how should we design the approach and departure path of our vertiport?

However, we are also supporting engineering departments in design validation or sales departments that require information on the service availability during conversations with their customers.

What do you think about social acceptance? How can we take it to the next level?

I am convinced that with any new technology, there are concerns that must be overcome and one way to do so is to start with use cases that have a high societal value, such as the delivery of blood and tissue samples or rescue/emergency applications. At the same time, it is important to have a high number of flights per day to achieve a viable business case, which is rather possible by deliveries of end-user products.

In my view, there is one key issue many drone operators will face within the next few years – when transitioning from demonstration and pilot projects to regular commercial operations. This will demand them to fly as much as possible, meaning also when weather conditions are not perfect. Operators will have to manage a trade-off between flying as much as possible and ensuring a high level of safety for every single flight. If the industry will manage this transition, I am sure that over time public acceptance will increase as people experience the value of drones in their own everyday lives.

Dr. Christoph Selig is one of DroneTalks Aerial Cities board members. Aerial Cities is an exclusive, invitation-only event connecting decision-makers at the highest levels of European city governments and CAAs with C-level AAM and drone company executives. How will urban air mobility and advanced air operations be scaled in the future? These are some of the many topics that will be discussed in-depth with the relevant experts during the two-day event in November in Berne, Switzerland.

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