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The challenge of developing flexible technologies that can move between different U-space models


HHLA Sky is a corporate start-up created by Hamburg Harbour Logistics AG (HHLA), which is a container terminal operator in the city of Hamburg. They have a primary background in operating critical infrastructure and were originally founded in 1885, making them over 135 years old. 

Around 5 years ago, HHLA tasked their team with making drones available and operational in the context of port use cases like security and inspections in the logistics industry. They then looked at the available technologies on the market at the time and realised that there was no adequate solution that fulfilled the very high requirements for industrial critical infrastructure needs. 

Sebastian Törsleff, the director of UTM at HHLA Sky, joined us for the interview to explain how HHLA Sky began to develop its own technology for these use cases. Their portfolio now comprises different drone types like multicopters of different sizes, VTOLs and autonomous mobile robots. On top of these, Sebastian also explained that their portfolio also contains a command control centre geared towards industrial, professional use of automated, autonomous vehicles.

Command and control centres for BVLOS drone operations

The platform created by HHLA Sky is geared towards drone operators and provides an integrated control service for advanced drone operations. Once the new U-space regulations were released, the team once again asked themselves how they could support operators that are using HHLA Sky technologies in a UTM or U-space context. Still, after looking on the market for available technologies, they realised that they would have to build it themselves.

Sebastian explained, “we really think that if you want to support operations in the U-space, and if you want to support BVLOS operations, the solution really is not to provide an additional app or a website, but it's providing these services in an integrated manner.”

After deciding to develop their own UTM technology, HHLA Sky began speaking to different operators about the potential use cases in logistic inspection and beyond. Many were already convinced that UTM services would provide added value, but some were still sceptical of the upcoming changes.

To illustrate these mentalities by users, Sebastian gave us an example of one operator looking to establish offshore logistics operations. That operator needed two people to operate: the drone pilot and someone observing the airspace while the drone was airborne to ensure there were no conflict with other traffic. 

HHLA Sky's goal in this context is to develop technology that removes the observer from the equation allowing much better unit economics and more efficient operations.

Harmonising technologies to grow U-space capabilities

Sebastian explained that each member state would be allowed to approach U-space on their own terms as long as the baseline regulations are met. Currently, HHLA Sky is looking at the Swiss market, which is very open and decentralised by design, and Germany, which is likely to follow a more centralised approach with a single common information service provider. 

That’s why HHLA Sky solutions are flexible enough to support both models. There are more than just two models that are possible. For example, if there is a common information service provider, there can still be vastly different definitions of what kind of information is processed through them. The European market is going through a period of exploration. 

Sebastian is confident that after this exploration period is finished, European countries will begin the second phase of harmonisation and standardisation between the solutions that prove the most effective. Because, in the end, the whole U-space and UTM infrastructure will only be able to flourish if these services are provided at a reasonable cost.

And, this will only be possible if there is a certain level of harmonisation across Europe.

The challenges of harmonisation

One of the main challenges for harmonisation that Sebastian sees is integrating drones into already busy urban airspaces. He mentioned the example of how the city of Hamburg has a lot of helicopter traffic, which presents a challenge that has yet to be solved when it comes to integrating uncrewed air traffic into these sections of airspace. 

The dynamic reconfiguration of airspace, however, could present itself as a potential solution in already controlled airspaces. Still, in most instances in Germany, air traffic controllers are only capable of communicating with airborne helicopters, so it will take time and a push from industry to connect rescue control centres and air traffic control to make flight intent known as early as possible to achieve more safety and efficiency for all stakeholders. 

This is also a challenge that HHLA Sky is really intensely working on at the moment.

About HHLA Sky

HHLA Sky is a German high-tech company focused on developing advanced drone solutions for Industry 4.0. The company has created a platform for centrally and simultaneously controlling drone fleets in different locations around the world, enabling fleet planning, scheduling, flight and data preparation. The HHLA Sky drone system is designed for operations in critical infrastructure and supports the simultaneous operation of over 100 autonomous drones beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS).

HHLA Sky has participated in various projects, including the automation of container logistics hinterland processes through the IHATEC initiative, which aims to speed up container rail handling. HHLA subsidiaries contribute their expertise in process automation and logistics, with HHLA Sky implementing the control and monitoring of mobile robots via its Integrated Control Center.

Other projects that HHLA Sky is involved in include U-space for Germany (LUV) and Efficiently Organising Drone Traffic (UDVeo). In the LUV project, the company is working with a consortium to develop solutions and recommendations for implementing the U-space regulation of the European Union. HHLA Sky contributes its expertise in process automation, mobile robot management and as a drone operator in critical infrastructure.

In the UDVeo project, HHLA Sky partners with other organisations to develop a comprehensive legal-technical concept for managing drone traffic. The goal is to establish an agency that coordinates automated drone traffic, integrating drone traffic into air traffic and the regular transport business.

About Sebastian Törsleff

Sebastian Törsleff is the Director of UTM at HHLA Sky GmbH, a position he has held since October 2022. Before joining HHLA Sky GmbH, he worked at Helmut-Schmidt-University for over six years, where he held positions such as Research Group Leader UAS/UTM and Research Associate. In the past, Sebastian also worked as a student assistant at TU Berlin and held various positions at Shell, including Project Analyst.

Sebastian Törsleff's education includes a Master of Science (M.Sc.) in Industrial Engineering and Management and a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) in Industrial Engineering and Management, both from Technische Universität Berlin. Additionally, he holds a Diplom (BA) in Information Systems from Berufsakademie Schleswig-Holstein, which he completed through a co-op programme with Shell Deutschland Oil GmbH.

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