First Fully Automated Cross-Border Rescue Flight Launched in Aachen

The GrenzFlug project between RWTH and the City of Aachen is concerned with the integration of unmanned aerial systems into search and rescue missions.

The Grenzflug project, which translates to “border flight” in English, succeeded in completing its first fully automated cross-border search and rescue mission. The NRW minister of transportation, Hendrik Wüst, launched the mission via a mobile ground control center in Düsseldorf and monitored the flight.

The fast and effective management of dangerous situations is crucial in search and rescue missions in large, complex areas. While ground-based search missions are time-consuming and involve a lot of personnel, automated aerial systems are able to arrive at the target area fast and to systematically search even the hardest-to-reach areas. Since December 2019, an Aachen research team has worked on providing the basis for the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles into cross-border rescue missions. A key challenge has been to deal with the different aviation legal frameworks in the tri-border region of Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Over the last months, the team from RWTH’s Institute of Flight System Dynamics headed by Professor Dieter Moormann have equipped an unmanned aircraft with all the sensors required for autonomous flight. The tilt wing aircraft is able to take off and land vertically and to cover long distances, even out of the controller’s range of vision.

As project leader Isabelle Barz reports, “At 10:15am today, the Maverix flight system took off from the roof of our mobile ground control center. After about three minutes’ operation, the flight system’s camera discovered Edgar, our dummy. The camera is capable of capturing thermal data, which makes it possible to conduct search and rescue missions under conditions of poor visibility, for example at night or in foggy weather. After completing its mission, the flight system autonomously returned to the ground station and landed on its roof.”

Dieter Moorman is very pleased with the demonstration flight: “On its search mission, the flight system crossed the border between the Netherlands and Germany several times at a height of about 50 meters above the slightly hilly terrain, switching between different overflight permits several times. There hasn’t been anything like this in Europe before. There are other RWTH projects which seek to further develop and expand applications of this kind – hopefully, it will soon be common practice to support rescue forces beyond national borders.”

The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) has provided funding for the GrenzFlug project through its mFUND program, which supports research and development projects for digital data-based Mobility 4.0 applications.

Interdisicplinary Technology Research for Real-World Applications

As Federal Minister Andreas Scheuer explains: “The project fits perfectly into the Urban Air Mobility initiative, which seeks to accelerate the deployment of innovative aerospace technologies. We support this important project with an €80,000 grant, so that our rescue forces will in future be able to help faster and more efficiently.”

The project also receives support from the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the City of Aachen. The City has contributed to GrenzFlug as part of its activities in the Urban Air Mobility initiative by the European Innovation Partnership ‘Smart Cities and Communities’ (EIP-SCC). Aachen has joined the partnership in 2018 as a member of the MAHHL consortium formed by the cities of Maastricht, Aachen, Hasselt, Heerlen, and Liège.

The Lord Mayor of Aachen, Sibylle Keupen, and RWTH Rector Ulrich Rüdiger were on site to witness the aircraft’s demonstration flight. Rüdiger lauded the GrenzFlug project as a good example of RWTH’s ambition to turn research into reality: “To research state-of-the-art technologies and turn them into real-world applications – that’s one of the defining hallmarks of our University.”

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