German Bundeswehr: Heavy drone first time flies in regular air traffic

A new EU certificate allows drones over 25 kilograms to fly beyond visual range in civil and military airspace. But there have been crashes.

The German Armed Forces Procurement Office tested a drone for the first time in military airspace beyond visual range, while regular air traffic was also taking place there. Flown was the UAV One 150 fixed-wing aircraft from the Primoco company in the Czech Republic.

The aircraft was equipped with transponders for this purpose in addition to radio communication. This allowed it to be integrated into the air traffic management system of manned aviation. The required sensors came from the German interception specialist Plath.

Plath and Primoco described the drone flights as a „milestone“ in a German military airspace. In fact, the tests could provide a breakthrough. That’s because until now, aviation law has stipulated that heavy drones can generally only fly in restricted airspace. This enormously reduces the possibilities for use in the military and civilian sectors.

Operations over 2,000 kilometers

The Bundeswehr procurement office commissioned the Defense Technology Center in Manching, Bavaria, to carry out the flight demonstrations. The tests, which lasted several days and involved a total of three takeoffs, therefore took place at the end of April at the airport operated by Ingolstadt-Manching. The pilots were provided by Primoco and hold civilian and military licenses.

The first flight was still on visual line of sight (VLOS), already at that time the airspace was cleared for all other aircraft types. The two following flights were conducted beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).

The UAV One 150 has a takeoff weight of 150 kilograms. Its payload is reported to be 30 kilograms, and its endurance is up to 15 hours. Controlled by radio, the drone can move up to 200 kilometers from the ground station, covering up to 2,000 kilometers.

LUC certificate since 2020

Drone manufacturers have long been working on integrating unmanned systems into air traffic management. So far, this has failed due to the availability of trustworthy avoidance systems. These have also been developed by German manufacturers such as Hensoldt, but have not yet been licensed by aviation authorities.

The flights of the Czech Primoco drone took place with a so-called Light UAS Operator Certificate (LUC certificate). This is an operator permit that was introduced as part of the EU Drone Regulation, which came into force in 2020. It can be applied for drones with a takeoff weight of more than 25 kilograms. Because they fly beyond visual range and crashes can produce serious injury or damage, they are considered high-risk applications.

A LUC certificate only needs to be applied for once. This eliminates the requirement to seek permission from the appropriate aviation authority for each individual drone flight. Instead, the risk of the desired application, which must be defined for this purpose, is assessed once and is then permanently valid.

No information about crash

From the press releases of Plath and Primoco it is not clear who applied for the LUC certificate for the flight demonstrations in Bavaria, it could also be issued to the Defense Technical Service. The frequencies for the flight demonstrations were allocated by the Federal Network Agency.

For the „unlikely event of a total failure“, Plath and Primoco had equipped the drone with a rescue parachute. This is also necessary, because there are incidents with such heavy drones again and again.

For example, a helicopter drone from the Austrian company Schiebel crashed into the Baltic Sea near Fehmarn a month ago. No people were injured in the incident. The Camcopter S-100, which weighs around 110 kilograms, was on a mission to measure ship emissions on behalf of the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). Out of sight, the drone’s range is around 200 kilometers.

EU’s first permit for Schiebel drone

Schiebel also received a LUC certificate last year from air traffic control in Austria for the Camcopter S-100; it is valid in all unrestricted civil airspace. According to the company, this is actually the first permit of its kind in the EU. Schiebel had expected that the possible applications of the Camcopter in the civil sector would now „multiply.“

The incident in the Baltic Sea could mean the but temporary withdrawal of the LUC certificate. As usual in such cases, the responsible aviation authority is now investigating the cause of the accident. All information on this, including the accident report, is therefore to remain secret.

The crash of the Camcopter is unlikely to slow down the entry of drones in the weight class above 25 kilograms into Europe’s unrestricted military and civil airspaces. Very heavy drones may also soon be found there.

1.2-ton drone soon to enter Switzerland’s civil airspace

Six months ago, the Israeli Civil Aviation Authority issued a permanent permit for Hermes 900 flights in civil airspace there. This is believed to be the world’s first type certificate of its kind; according to a spokesperson, manufacturer Elbit worked on it for six years. The drone has a takeoff weight of up to two tons.

Elbit also markets the Hermes 900, which was developed for the military, for civilian applications. Among other things, the drone was commissioned by EMSA and completed missions for the Icelandic coast guard and the EU border agency Frontex. In the process, the it crashed on the runway with a total loss.

Another crash occurred during a test flight for the Swiss military. Nevertheless, the Swiss government plans to allow the Hermes 900 to fly in civilian airspace from the end of 2024. But perhaps that schedule will be delayed, because two weeks ago, a Hermes 900 again suffered a crash landing, this time in the Philippines.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.