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Switzerland: Is This the World’s Mecca for Drones?

Wingtra in one of Switzerland's forests

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Switzerland: Is This the World’s Mecca for Drones?

Wingtra is one of Switzerland's drone startups | Twitter/Wingtra

Switzerland: Is This the World’s Mecca for Drones?

With more than 80 drone startups founded in Switzerland in recent years, the country is proving itself a leader in research and development of drones.

So much so that people refer to the “Drone Valley” between the Technical Universities of Zurich and Lausanne.

What is the secret of this success? And how can chaos in the sky be avoided?

“It’s the best place in Europe to engage in robotics and implement its own ideas,” says Przemyslaw Kornatowski.

“We are really good at this area, so good that there are companies leaving the US to come to the region commonly known as the Drone Valley,” says Maximilian Boosfeld.

The two are founders and directors of two Swiss startups.

Kornatowski has launched Dronistic in its own protective cage flying drones that can transport small packages.

Boosfeld is the director of Wingtra, which launched a cartography and topography relief drone in 2017 and today employs 45 people.

Innovation conquers the market

Wingtra emerged from a research project at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich (ETH).

The Wingtra drone takes off vertically like a helicopter and, after taking off, switches to horizontal flight like an airplane.

“Thanks to this trump we were able to outperform the competition,” says Boosfeld.

“Our fixed-wing drone can cover larger areas than a quadrocopter and is capable of taking high-resolution images because it is equipped with advanced cameras.”

The Wingtra drone is used worldwide, for example in large infrastructure projects or in tag mining mines, to observe the construction or mining from above.

WingtraOne before the take-off

The drone “WingtraOne” starts vertically like a helicopter, but can then fly like an airplane.

The drone from Dronistics, on the other hand, was developed at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL). Currently, the startup employs seven robotics experts.

“Our drone can be picked up in flight without the risk of getting injured by the propellers,” says Kornatowski.

The carbon fiber protective cage can be opened like a package. After taking the delivery – letters, medicine, primary care items or groceries – the drone automatically flies back to its starting point thanks to an app developed by EPFL researchers.

“When not in use, the ‘packdrone’ can be folded up and conveniently stored in a backpack or drawer,” says Dronistics Director Kornatowski. “Our idea is well received and has already aroused the interest of some customers.”

The "Packdrone" from Dronistics flies in its own safety cage, preventing dangerous contact with the rotors | EPFL

The “Packdrone” from Dronistics flies in its own safety cage, preventing dangerous contact with the rotors | EPFL

Three success factors

The success does not come by chance. In fact, a kind of “Drone Valley” is in full bloom in the area between the two technical colleges, Zurich and Lausanne. In recent years, more than 80 companies have created 2,500 jobs.

This development is based on various factors.

“Switzerland has two excellent robotics schools, the best in Europe, if not the world, and a startup has to bring the brightest minds together to turn an idea into a successful product, and that’s possible in Switzerland,” says Boosfeld.

“There are programs and structures that support innovative projects and startups, including InnosuisseExternal Link,” adds Kornatowski.

In addition, Switzerland applies pragmatic legislation in this area, which gives researchers a great deal of freedom; This is another reason why Switzerland is today a leader in drone technology.

“The Swiss Confederation wants to maintain its pioneering role and is keen to keep this industry growing, and for those who work in this industry, this means working with a very responsive legislator who takes into account the needs of research and development and unnecessary ones and slow bureaucracy, “says Boosfeld.

The sky is getting fuller

In the current Swiss legislation, the term drone does not exist. These unmanned flying objects are considered aircraft models, although they can do much more than just fly. The Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) has begun to thoroughly revise the existing regulations.

To assess the risks of drone missions, the FOCA has introduced new guidelines, the Specific Operations Risk Assessment (SORA). This analysis process is slowly gaining ground and establishing itself worldwide.

In addition, a register for drones will be created, thanks to which the owners can be identified. At the time of purchase, it should register its device, which must be equipped with a technical system to enable identification of the pilot. Only in this way can those be found and punished who use drones for illegal activities such as the violation of privacy.

Drones above our heads are becoming more and more commonplace. In Switzerland, 22,000 units are sold every year and more than 100,000 are already in the sky.

“The sky is big enough for everyone – birds, helicopters, airplanes, parachutists – but it needs a strategy to govern living together,” says Boosfeld.

It is for this very reason that the non-governmental organization Global UTM Association, based in Lausanne, has created a system for the organization of drone traffic at national level. It is similar to the one used by Skyguide air traffic control for all civil and military flights.

With U-Space – as the digital infrastructure for the control of drones in the sky – especially the traffic in the airspace over densely populated centers or near airports to be regulated. A pioneering project for Europe, in the drone mecca of Switzerland.

A version of this article first appeared on Swissinfo.ch.

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