05/2013 - "Drones go green" dans "Letzebuerger Land" 17/05/2013 p.11 (English Translation)

Drones go green

On 8 May, during the Business Meets Research conference at the Chambre de Commerce, the Centre de Recherche Public – Gabriel Lippmann signed an agreement with DroneLab, a company specialised in scientific and technical imaging with drones. It is a first for Luxembourg.

The objective of this new public-private partnership is to facilitate the use of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), initially developed for military applications, in environnemental observation and monitoring missions. According to Lucien Hoffmann, scientific director of the Environment and Agrobiotechnologies Department of the centre, using drones will increase the precision and the frequency of the remote sensing data and improve the sustainable management of the natural resources.

“Until now, we were dependent on airplanes or satellites to collect aerial data. These were not always useful for us in so far as they seldom came at the right time and were often insufficiently precise. Images from optical sensors in satellites are of no use  when there are too many clouds, as is often the case in the Greater Region. With drones, we have an additional tool, more flexible and more adapted to emergency situations such as high flood threats after heavy rain. They could also be very useful for precision farming. Equiped with hyperspectral sensors able to give information about soil and plant conditions, they will allow us to better forecast harvests, to mark off nitrogen-poor areas and even to better use pesticides.

“Other great advantages of these engines”, said Jean-Marc Simonis of DroneLab, “are that they are ten to twelve times cheaper per flying hour than planes or helicopters and they can fly above zones which might be dangerous for a manned aicraft. Nowadays, drones are still underused because current measuring instruments are still too big and too heavy. The industry will gradually grow as sensors become lighter and smaller.”

Another objective of this partnership is to develop new types of sensors which can be placed in drones. “Our department is involved in European Space Agency projects aiming to propose integrated solutions combining airplanes, satellites and drones”, continued Lucien Hoffmann. “In the future, we are convinced that these projects will lead to industrial and business applications.”

It is clear that, in the years to come, drones’ spheres of activity will encompass more than just the environment. Public security, news, entertainment and energy are cited as potential growing markets. In the United States, the economic impact of expanding airspace for unmanned planes by 2015 could be more than $ 13.6 bn. for the first three years and could have an accumulated total of more than $ 82.1 bn. between 2015 and 2025. By 2025, total job creation is estimated at more than 100 000.

But these promising figures should not hide the fact that there is a legal vacuum in this sector. Noy only can unmanned aircraft present a threat to privacy but their flexibility can also be limited by the lack of legislation. “We have to ask for a permit from the relevant ministry and this can take several weeks”, explained Jean-Marc Simonis. To make progress, the new partners joined representatives of the Army and of the Direction de l’Aviation Civile (DAC) to create an ad hoc working group. To be continued.  

Stéphane ETIENNE