Project „FRADrones 2020“: Ready for take off

More and more drones are taking over our skies. For the majority of pilots they are – still – toys, which hopefully will never find their way into the environs of a commercial airport. In contrast, Fraport AG has already been exploring potential professional applications at Frankfurt Airport since 2013. The project “FRADrones 2020” is now getting started in earnest.

Drones over airport grounds? These words are enough to make any air traffic controller or cockpit crew break out in a sweat. Because the risk of a collision, with potentially serious consequences, is great – especially if the drones are operated by inexperienced hobby pilots. However, Felix Toepsch has a different take on the use of these small, unmanned flying objects: “Indeed there are plenty of useful applications for drones in large airports,” explains the head of the project “FRADrones 2020”. Experts from different Fraport departments are involved in the project. Toepsch outlines the objective of the project: “We don’t just want to find out where we might be able to use drones at the site; we also want to see how they might be integrated into daily operational business at Frankfurt Airport in the long term.” All tests take place in close cooperation with the responsible authorities and Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS), the company in charge of air traffic control for Germany.

The project team didn’t have to look too hard for suitable applications: The drone’s first mission will be to fly over the excavation pit for Fraport’s new terminal 3 in the middle of 2018, which is set to be operational from 2023, and take measurements in the process. “Using a combination of a camera and measuring software, and a 3D digital model calculated from this, we can then check, for example, the excavated volume and thus the status of the building work,” says Toepsch. If the test proves to be a success, additional, regular drone flights are conceivable.

Felix Toepsch is head of the project “FRADrones 2020” at Frankfurt Airport.
More and more drones are taking over our skies. For the majority of pilots they are – still – toys, which hopefully will never find their way into the environs of a commercial airport. In contrast, Fraport AG has already been exploring potential professional applications at Frankfurt Airport since 2013. The project “FRADrones 2020” is now getting started in earnest.
Drones over airport grounds? These words are enough to make any air traffic controller or cockpit crew break out in a sweat. Because the risk of a collision, with potentially serious consequences, is great – especially if the drones are operated by inexperienced hobby pilots. However, Felix Toepsch has a different take on the use of these small, unmanned flying objects: “Indeed there are plenty of useful applications for drones in large airports,” explains the head of the project “FRADrones 2020”. Experts from different Fraport departments are involved in the project. Toepsch outlines the objective of the project: “We don’t just want to find out where we might be able to use drones at the site; we also want to see how they might be integrated into daily operational business at Frankfurt Airport in the long term.” All tests take place in close cooperation with the responsible authorities and Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS), the company in charge of air traffic control for Germany.

The project team didn’t have to look too hard for suitable applications: The drone’s first mission will be to fly over the excavation pit for Fraport’s new terminal 3 in the middle of 2018, which is set to be operational from 2023, and take measurements in the process. “Using a combination of a camera and measuring software, and a 3D digital model calculated from this, we can then check, for example, the excavated volume and thus the status of the building work,” says Toepsch. If the test proves to be a success, additional, regular drone flights are conceivable.

Felix Toepsch is head of the project “FRADrones 2020” at Frankfurt Airport.
“If further tests continue to produce good results, we can then start looking toward integration into regular operation,” reveals Ansgar Sickert who supports the project team on the air traffic side of things. This is also likely to open up many other new fields of application:

  • Runway checks: Detection of items on the runway system
  • Applications for airport fire department: Capturing images of different situations in the event of large-scale emergencies
  • Perimeter protection: Automated take-off to monitor airport perimeter
  • Wildlife: Detection and deterrence of animals on airport grounds

Prerequisite for these cases: The responsible authorities have provided all relevant approvals.

Ansgar Sickert supports the “FRADrones 2020“ project team on the air traffic side of things.
The drone used by Fraport is a professional model according to the information given by Toepsch and Sickert, which has been heavily modified for technical air navigation and regulatory reasons. The flying device therefore features a transponder weighing approximately 500 grams, just like what you would find on board any other type of commercial aircraft. This makes it possible to locate the drone at all times with all its flight parameters displayed on the radar screens of air traffic control. The anti-collision lights are also adopted from professional aviation and this ensures better optical visibility. And before every take-off, the tower must give ATC clearance over the radio; only then can the specially trained pilot start the drone, using remote control, in a narrow flying range defined in advance.

Different back-up procedures, defined depending on the type and place of use, also ensure that the drone can land safely in the event that the radio connection fails unexpectedly. “Our project team in Germany is the first to successfully master all of the conceivable challenges associated with a drone flight on a busy airport site,” comments Toepsch with satisfaction. He is keen to pass on the knowledge that has been developed and is not just thinking about the airports in which Fraport is involved worldwide: “It may well be the case that “FRADrones 2020” even develops into its own business model in the future, which we can then offer to other commercial airports of the Fraport Group and beyond in the long term.”

Toepsch, Sickert and their colleagues therefore are not just thinking beyond the boundaries of Frankfurt Airport, rather they have already developed a much larger and more long-term vision of unmanned flying: “In the project “FRADrones 2020” we are also discussing autonomous wide-body drones for cargo and passengers, which in the future would be able to take off and land at Frankfurt Airport like normal planes.”

Text by Behrend Oldenburg
Photos: Fraport