Drones Instead of Cars


First fully automated cross-border drone flight is successful


With a wingspan of 1.83 meters, the drone reaches speeds of up to 90 kilometers per hour: As calculated, it appeared behind the Schneeberg hill in the west of Aachen at 10:45am on Friday and landed a few moments later in the field next to Uniklinik RWTH Aachen (University hospital). It was the first fully automated – supported by satellite navigation and mobile radio – unmanned cross-border flight, and this positive result was the first major success for the EULE research project.

"EULE" stands for European UAV-assisted transportation solutions for medical goods, with the word itself meaning “owl” in German. The medical goods transported on Friday were corneas. Normally, vehicles are dispatched for these vessels transporting the corneas, which hold just 50 millimeters. "This is costly, energy-intensive, and emissions-intensive," explains Professor Dieter Moormann, head of the Chair and Institute of Flight System Dynamics at RWTH.

It took the drone 13 minutes to cover the 14 kilometers from Zuyderland Medical Center in Heerlen, the Netherlands, to the University hospital. The drone flew at altitudes of 50 to 90 meters, avoided populated areas, and adhered to the safety corridor around the precisely calculated route. After taking off in Heerlen, the drone flew in a westerly direction for a short while before taking a wide left turn and then heading southeast toward Aachen. Among other things, it had to fly over a highway and a power line. The flight itself is operated automatically, "but we can intervene at any time for safety reasons," explained Dr. Johanna Holsten from RWTH spin-off flyXdrive. One such reason could be, for example, a rescue helicopter arriving at the University hospital. On Friday, everything went smoothly: the takeoff, flight, and landing – as calculated and precisely tracked by the researchers on monitors at all times.

Especially in and around Aachen, flights are anything but trivial. Because on top of everything else, there's the cross-border factor here. "The previous test flights and the flight today demonstrate that we have mastered this topic," said Professor Moormann. Thus, for the airspace in the Dutch-Belgian-German merger of the MAHHL cities (Maastricht, Aachen, Heerlen, Hasselt, Liège), the opportunities for cross-border air traffic are considered at an early stage. Specifically, flights to hospitals in Cologne will soon be tested, as the EULE cooperation partners also meet the safety requirements for flights over populated areas. The legal requirements are therefore fulfilled, and the test on Friday made it clear that everything is also ready from a technical perspective.