We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Christoph Selig, the Chief Commercial Officer and Co-Founder of Unisphere, to learn more about how they’ve relaunched their technology-based operations and weather management platform for professional drone operators. Unisphere’s NOVA platform allows drone operators to create a digital twin of their flight operations, which builds the basis for automated weather risk assessment and flight planning.

The platform is backed by an underlying simulation technology, which is used to understand the weather’s impact on drone operations, i.e. the weather a drone will encounter throughout the flight's duration. NOVA does this through providing good weather condition windows to support take-off decisions for flight scheduling and dispatching. In the software, drone operators can also see decisions backed by technical, internal and regulatory limitations for weather conditions.

Christoph explained that it is important to first understand what operations management is and how Unisphere’s software plays an important role in enabling drone operators to efficiently manage their mission planning for pre-flight weather checks. The aim is to ensure that the drone operator is always able to recognise when it is safe to fly by using NOVA to automate relevant human tasks in flight planning and preparing the weather risk assessment. He further explained that in addition to the current pre-flight functions, the team plans to continuously extend the functionality to cover post-flight and in-flight activities in the future. The basic idea behind the software is to combine best-in-class weather data with operational knowhow required for automating relevant pilot tasks. Therefore, the software identifies key information such as what the current weather conditions are, which drone they intend to use, what the drone's capabilities are as well as whether the drone operator is within their Concept of Operations (ConOps) to ensure they meet any internal flight standards. All this information is processed through their simulation technology and provided in an interactive dashboard that goes beyond the traditional features of a simple weather app.

How Unisphere was founded and why they're automating pilot tasks for drone operations

When we asked Christoph what inspired Unisphere to work on technology-driven operations and weather management, he explained that a lot of it was directly related to the legacy of Unisphere. The company is already six years old and was founded by former members of the Solar Impulse Project, which was a project established by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg who wanted to engineer and fly a solar-powered aircraft around the world.

The founding team of Unisphere, Christoph Schlettig (CEO) and Michael Anger (CTO) – former flight test engineers and flight directors at the Solar Impulse Project – as well as a large part of Unisphere’s technical team were heavily involved in the project, which called for complex and dynamic weather predictions. One article from the Smithsonian explained how “weather became the team's biggest foe. Because the plane travels on a sinuous path — climbing to nearly 30,000 feet elevation during the day but slowly descending to roughly 5,000 feet at night to save energy — the team ha[d] to forecast wind, humidity and temperature at multiple elevations. And the swirling weather system [was] constantly evolving and changing.“

Christoph says that those involved in the project had to quickly learn what it means to operate an electric aircraft, similar to what we're seeing today with drones and air taxis. These uncrewed aircraft are much more sensitive to weather conditions than larger aircraft like an Airbus, which weigh a lot more and fly a lot faster. So, weather has a much more significant impact. For example, if you are flying at 30 kt and you get a 20 kt headwind, it can be critical to a mission, whereas for conventional aviation the impact is much less because of the different order of magnitude. The long duration and distance of the flight made it impossible to do weather predictions by hand, which is why the Solar Impulse team had to apply simulation technologies to automate the process. For this, they used a team of more than 20 people to ensure safe mission operations during the Solar Impulse Project. The knowledge they gained proved to be a great business opportunity with growing use cases, allowing them to start a new company where they began to take the experiences from this unique experiment and translate it into a Software as a Service (SaaS) solution making it available for the entire drone industry.

The challenges that come with developing a drone software

Christoph explained that, in addition to the challenges of building a functional software for customers, the Unisphere team has also had to adapt to the lack of operational maturity in the industry. When Unisphere launched its MVP of the platform about 3 years ago, there weren’t many large drone operators that are flying drones on a regular commercial basis. This limited the market to a rather small number of what Unisphere calls drone airlines – operators that use different types of drones in their missions and had a need for a sophisticated operations management platform.

Although Christoph told us that he couldn't name all of his current customers, he is allowed to say that, for example, Lilium, the German eVTOL manufacturer, uses Unisphere’s software for organising their flight testing. Recently, Unisphere also finished an ESA-supported research project together with Matternet and Nordic Unmanned that focused on the integration of advanced simulation technology and performance models into their software NOVA. Today, the software is used on four continents by multiple large drone operators and eVTOL companies.

Aside from these larger and more advanced drone operators that often have the backing of investors, many younger drone companies are still in search of viable business cases, which doesn’t leave them with many additional resources to invest in professional weather and operations management software. Christoph explained to us that “the weather is still important, of course, as every drone operator wants to fly safely, but without regular commercial operations, solutions for weather risk management isn’t the highest priority for these companies.”

He also readily admitted that working with weather datais a challenge since the reliability and accuracy of a forecast is based on multiple factors, making it difficult for non-experienced pilots to recognise when operations are safe, especially when flight operations are complex or taking place in unknown areas. . On top of these factors, Unisphere’s customers typically operate in multiple countries as well as in multiple continents, which requires global coverage for their weather model and weather observations such as radar data. This meant Unisphere had to move beyond their home country of Germany and manage globally sourced data to meet the expectations of their international customer base.

Finding reliable sources of weather data for multiple regions around the world is a challenge for drone operators. The NOVA platform addresses this need by providing global coverage with high-resolution weather data. To further assist drone operators in ensuring safe flight operations, Unisphere has created a system that is capable of covering the various limitations that an operator must consider when planning flights and assessing weather risk, i.e. the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) limits of the drone and operational limitation sets resulting from internal standards.

Although the NOVA platform provides global coverage with high-resolution weather data, the accuracy and reliability of the forecast data can vary from region to region. In regions where an operator has little experience, the traffic light system can be used with higher accuracy thresholds (additional safety margin) to ensure flight safety and learn about the accuracy over time, allowing the thresholds to be narrowed down to the original standards.

The complexity is further increased when flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) over long distances due to in-flight planning resulting from the use of various aircraft types with specific capabilities, different regulatory requirements and the company’s operational limitations. NOVA’s underlying simulation technology allows an evaluation of flight conditions along the entire flight path, automatically assessing the different limitation sets and the impact weather has on flight time including the battery's state of charge. This significantly increases flight safety and improves the understanding of the weather's impact on operations for better flight planning and scheduling, leading to higher operational efficiency. To further support safe flight operations, Unisphere has created a system that is able to cover the various limitations that an operator must consider during in-flight planning and weather risk assessments, i.e. the OEM's limitations of the drone, regulatory requirements from the respective country they are flying in and operational limitation sets from internal standards. That way, when the pilot opens the software, they know that the first thing they will see is an evaluation determining if the current weather situation fits with the drone and operations limitations.

Digital twins for professional drone flight operations

During the interview, Christoph told us that we were among the first to see a live demonstration of the new Unisphere platform. The first thing he did was introduce us to the dashboard with an overview of the weather conditions and the automated evaluation determining the feasibility of drone flights. For this, each weather parameter from the ConOps is evaluated for the respective constraints resulting in an hourly evaluation of the overall flight conditions. In addition, the current situation is displayed, including a precipitation radar, METAR data from airports nearby and additional weather parameters like wind directions and strengths.  

The new platform provides an automated hourly overview of weather conditions for the next two days. The colour system is based on the basic traffic light system where green is within the limits, yellow indicates caution and red signals times when a drone operator cannot complete the mission with the specified drone due to weather limitations. Furthermore, a 7-day outlook is available to support weekly scheduling  and resource planning. Christoph also explained that they are currently expanding functionalities to include the possibility to evaluate flights along a specific route, beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). Currently, NOVA is only available for flights at a specific point.

To simplify the management of the different drone types, aircraft limitations and operational limitations, Unisphere developed an asset manager. All drones and limitation sets can be created and managed in the asset manager, which allows for centralised management of the whole organisation. For example, if certain operational limitations change, they only need to be edited once in the asset manager and all drone missions that are using this limitation set will be adjusted automatically.

This enhances compliance and flight safety while simultaneously ensuring that everyone is flying according to the most recent rules and regulations.

When creating a new drone mission, the drone operator must first define the location. Afterwards, they will need to select the drone type and the operational limitation set that will be used in the respective mission. Combining the selected drone with the operational limitation set is all that is required to create a new mission.

Initially, the drone operator might spend a few minutes defining limitations for the different drone types as well as any additional operational limitation sets in the asset manager. But, once they have been defined, the mission set-up can be done in less than a minute while considering all specifics of the flight operations, which ensures compliance with all internal and external requirements combined with a user-friendly UI for the actual flight planning in the field.

After creating the mission, all the weather data is displayed in a dashboard that automatically considers the restrictions and operational limitations of the drone. As mentioned above, these are set automatically based on technical manuals, regulatory requirements or internal standards and processes that are mirrored in the drones and limitation sets.

The interactive dashboard enables drone operators to see a two-day overview, with green highlighted times at the top showing when all requirements are met, and more detailed information for each parameter below.

This allows organisations to create a digital twin of their flight operations that goes beyond a simple weather app. Christoph told us that the aim was to take a complex topic and break it down into a simple visualisation for the operators. For beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations — flights of 10 kilometres or more — it's an absolute must to use professional planning tools since flight planning becomes tremendously more complex. But, this is also true for visual line of sight (VLOS) operations, where the automated evaluation and identification of flight windows saves the pilot a lot of time, allowing them to focus on what counts — flying the drone safely and providing the services to their customers.

Christoph explained that they also conducted extensive user testing with 10 different drone operators to understand how they differ in their flight planning and risk assessment processes in order to create a user-centric product. This feedback was used during the development process to make several iterations of the platform and improve the overall experience. Some features of the former weather management platform will remain, such as the traffic light system that shows green for good, yellow for caution and red for prohibited. He mentioned that this was a way of simplifying complex information that many operators really appreciated as it brought them one step closer to automation, which would allow their companies to start flying automatically when the digital twin was green. In addition to this, each industry type will use the software differently. For example, some maritime drone operators are likely to fly drones for four to five hours at a time. For them, an understanding of the flight conditions not only at take-off but also during the entire flight is crucial. Another example would be radio tower inspections, where this could mean 20 tower inspections in the next 5 days. These types of companies will use the NOVA platform to get a general forecast of when they can fly to each of those locations to get the job done on time. For them, Christoph told us, it’s more of an optimisation problem, when to be where to ensure that all flights can be conducted in the given timeframe. On the other hand, medical delivery companies are trying to provide a service, so if the weather is bad, they might have to use an alternative means of transport, like a car or a bike, which will have to be managed as well.

Why did Unisphere decide to sponsor Aerial Cities 2023?

When we asked Christoph why Unisphere decided to sponsor Aerial Cities 2023, he said,

“In the last year’s edition, there were a lot of interesting speakers and panels, but also networking partners, which was very interesting with regard to how the conference was set up alongside the networking opportunities. Our team really enjoyed the mix as well as the other people who were invited. Usually, at these conferences, you see the same people at one or two events and they're old friends, so it feels more like a reunion than an actual event.

"Aerial Cities is more about meeting new people and connecting with stakeholders who don't already know each other — including from other industries and city stakeholders responsible for advanced mobility initiatives. That's one of the things we really appreciated about Aerial Cities 2022, and why we decided to support Aerial Cities 2023 again this year to advance the emergence of the drone industry.

"At the end of the day, the only way for the drone industry to grow is to work together with all decision-makers in both public and private sectors."

About Unisphere

Unisphere is a software company based in Konstanz, Germany, that specialises in providing smart software solutions to automate the flight and operations management of drones, air taxis and vertiports. Since the founding of Unisphere in 2017, the company constantly grew to almost 20 people today, working with global customers from four continents.

Over time, the range of services grew from initial consulting and engineering services in the early days of Unisphere, i.e. supporting aviation authorities in SORA approvals to different software-based services today, including their data analytics solutions for vertiport and air taxi companies to improve site selection, vertiport design and business case evaluation as well as their recently launched software platform NOVA and a U-Space Weather Information Service that is already used in multiple countries in Europe.

 About Christoph Selig

Christoph Selig is a well-known figure in the drone industry with a deep passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. He believes that being an entrepreneur is synonymous with working to actively shape the future, which can currently be seen in the drone and air taxi industry, where collective entrepreneurial activity is leading to the biggest change in the world of aviation in decades. 

In parallel to his Ph.D. on entrepreneurial innovation management, he joined Unisphere as Co-Founder and Chief Commercial Officer. Unisphere, a tech-driven start-up headquartered in Konstanz, Germany, provides technology-based software solutions to automate the flight operations of drones, air taxis and vertiports. One of Unisphere's key innovations is NOVA, the Digital Co-Pilot platform for professional drone operators, a system born from the fusion of digital twin technologies and extensive operational expertise.

Prior to his role at Unisphere, Christoph was also deeply embedded in the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Konstanz. He co-founded and led Kilometer1 from November 2016 to February 2021. Kilometer1 is the start-up initiative of the local universities in Konstanz, dedicated to fostering the entrepreneurial spirit and providing support to budding start-ups within the academic environment.

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