Rising to the Challenge
© Getty
April 2019

Rising to the Challenge

Clogged roads and railroads at their capacity limits – the conquest of airspace may help decongest traffic on the ground. Vertical mobility using drones is a promising complement to the portfolio of urban and interurban mobility – also for Schaeffler.

The Port of Hamburg: Huge cargo ships are moored alongside their berths while heavy containers are being unloaded from them. The port bustles with activity and the noise interferes with the buzz from above where drones are busy doing their job. Two years ago, the local terminal operator HHLA started using the small aerial vehicles for visual maintenance checks. The Hamburg Port Authority has been using drones to inspect the nearby 135 meter (443 foot) high Köhlbrand Bridge for damage for several years as well. The unmanned airborne spies have also been monitoring train tracks, pipelines, the façades of buildings or offshore windfarms, and law enforcement agencies are increasingly enlisting the aid of this type of air support too.

Two tons of payload

The areas in which drones are used are practically growing by the day. In Singapore, Airbus recently launched the transportation of goods by drones to ships berthed in the city-state’s coastal waters. Up to four kilos (8.8 lbs) of payload and distances of up to three kilometers (1.9 miles) are already possible today, so that spare parts, medicines, money or documents can be flown to the vessels, which is routine business in major global transshipment hubs such as Singapore. With drones this can be accomplished six times faster and 90 percent cheaper than by boat, according to Airbus. In the Port of Hamburg, even large containers are supposed to be flown back and forth by drones in the foreseeable future. “In our operations, the boxes are learning to fly,” promises Angela Titzrath, CEO of Hamburger Hafen and Logistik AG (HHLA). Considering that some quadcopters are already able to lift up to two tons (2.2 short tons), one is inclined to believe her promise.

Rising to the Challenge
Fast and efficient: drones are already used in delivery operations and in the future will even be operating with large (albeit empty) containers suspended from them© Fabian Wentzel/Getty

All of these examples are just the beginning of a vertical mobility offensive. As the size of drones keeps growing, so do their possible uses. Prof. Dr.-Ing. Tim ­Hosenfeldt, Senior Vice President Technology, Strategy & Innovation at Schaeffler, is convinced: “The future of urban mobility will increasingly be airborne.” At a congress about urban mobility concepts of the future, the Schaeffler expert described the wide range of possible applications: from delivery services, medical care and interurban mobility all the way to motor racing (see also box below).

Democratization of vertical mobility

Vertical mobility has already become reality today in megacities such as São Paulo, Mexico City, London, and New York – with helicopters. However, only the wealthy can afford this convenient, congestion-free, and thus punctual service. Drones may help democratize this form of mobility. Mobility services provider Uber expects initial costs for Uber Air drone taxis to amount to 5.73 dollars per passenger mile with a mid-term target of 1.86 dollars and ultimately 0.44 dollars, which would roughly amount to the costs of a passenger mile in a privately owned car. Porsche Consulting has costed some routes for Hamburg such as a drone flight from the airport to the city’s new landmark, the “Elbphilharmonie” concert hall. The result: 30 euros for 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) on a 30-minute flight – faster and cheaper than the ground-bound taxi competition.

Rising to the Challenge

Drones picking up cargo or passenger boxes of the Schaeffler Mover and taking them from A to B even faster: this is how the supplier can imagine an interlinking of vertical and horizontal mobility© Schaeffler
Politik fliegt auf Drohnen-Technologie

These figures almost sound like bargains not to be missed, so the question is when drones in passenger and freight transportation will actually get off the ground. “We expect the breakthrough in 2025,” says Schaeffler expert Hosenfeldt. Sebastian Thrun, a longstanding Google VP and Fellow, and current CEO of air taxi startup Kitty Hawk, is convinced that “in a few years’ time, this will be the hottest topic on the planet.” Such predictions are supported by the large-scale efforts currently being made to vigorously drive the technology forward. Established companies in the aviation sector like Airbus, Bell, and Boeing or startups such as Lilium, eHang, Kitty Hawk, and Volocopter are at the ready and political leaders provide tailwind. On the occasion of the Airbus flying taxi presentation, German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer was almost euphoric: “We want to take drones and flying taxis out of the laboratory into the air – in the spirit of Germany as a strong place for innovation.” His Austrian colleague, Norbert Hofer, verbally goes full throttle as well in expressing his hopes for Austria to be among the first countries to see drone taxis flying through the cities. The competition is fierce, as vertical mobility projects are being launched in as many as 50 cities around the globe.

Facts and figures

  • 1,000 flights

    were cancelled at London’s Gatwick airport in 2018 shortly before Christmas due to an intrusion of drones into the airspace. More than 140,000 passengers were affected.

  • 15 million

    flight hours: worldwide, urban airspaces are expected to account for this number by 2035; 3 billion by 2050, and 12 billion by 2070.
    (Source: “Urban Air Mobility Study Report 2019” by Horváth & Partner)

  • 23,000

    drones or similar unmanned aerial vehicles could be produced by 2035. The numbers will massively increase by 2050 (3 million) and 2070 (7 million).
    (Source: “Urban Air Mobility Study Report 2019” by Horváth & Partner)

The vigorous enthusiasm displayed by legislators fuels the fantasies of drone companies for good reason: without the necessary legal frameworks urban airspaces will remain off limits. Lilium CEO Daniel Wiegand cautions: “The technology is not our problem. Rather it’s the things we’re not in control of ourselves, such as aviation rules and the development of the new infrastructure with takeoff and landing stations.”

The future of urban mobility will increasingly be airborne

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Tim Hosenfeldt,
Senior Vice President Technology, Strategy & Innovation

Whether local politicians, environmental organizations, and residents of the “droned” cities share this euphoria is at least questionable. The airspace in densely populated urban areas is particularly critical. Noise pollution and environmental protection are equally sensitive subjects as the aspect of safety. Nobody wants to see congested airspace on top of the traffic jams on the roads below and definitely no aerial vehicles crashing over bustling neighborhoods. Respondents to a survey conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, expressed serious concerns when asked about aspects like safety, noise, and invasion of privacy. The thought of putting one’s fate into the hands of an autonomously flying machine evokes ambivalent feelings as well. Moreover, the majority of the respondents felt that passenger flights with drones made more sense in interurban than urban travel.

Schaeffler leverages expertise

In order to prevent accidents, the technical requirements to be met by the unmanned aerial vehicles are extremely high as well, which is an advantage for Schaeffler. “We’ve been active as a supplier to the aerospace sector for four decades and are certified accordingly,” says Hosenfeldt. “This facilitates our access to the expanding market of drones.” The company’s experience in the Formula E electric racing series is valuable as well, particularly in the area of heat development. Manufacturers struggle with this issue time and time again during test flights, up to and including damage caused by fire. Hosenfeldt: “In Formula E, we’ve been gathering important experience also in the area of thermal management because in racing the drive systems we’ve co-developed have to deliver maximum performance and resist the resulting loads for extended periods of time.”

Schaeffler is currently engaged in discussions with various manufacturers. The people at the technology group can imagine supplying complete propulsion systems in addition to bearings, electric motors, and power electronics. And why not let passenger or cargo boxes of the Schaeffler Mover urban and autonomous mobility concept become airborne with drones? As the saying goes in the industry: “The sky is the limit.”

Swiss Army Knife of mobility

Drones are fast, agile, safe-in-flight, and available in diverse sizes and price ranges – which makes them extremely versatile.

    Super-fast commuting
    Interlinking of horizontal and vertical transport
    Airport-to-city flights
    Rescue services
    Domestic flights
    Charter flights
    Cargo transport
    Disaster relief
    Drone racing series
    Research and development
Carsten Paulun
Author Carsten Paulun
When mobility and technology journalist Carsten Paulun is stuck in traffic he sometimes wishes a drone would pick him and his vehicle up and fly them to their destination. Fearing that noise and costs may prove to be the greatest challenges posed by vertical mobility, he wouldn’t want to see an isolated jet set high society buzzing above his head.