Whether it be for the urgent transport of medical products, the visual inspection of bridges, overhead cables and other lines or the movement of components from a supplier to a carmaker, drones offer a wide range of highly relevant deployment options. ALTER TECHNOLOGY is working on technological solutions to ensure that they can function safely in shared airspace. The most recent innovative project from Spain is called TRACE.

It was a moment of some celebration when, in October 2020, the first drone lifted off the launchpad at the Atlas experimental flight centre in the Spanish city of Jaén with the aim of carrying out tests of unmanned flying systems. On board was also a smart radio beacon which had been developed and constructed by an international consortium under the direction of ALTER TECHNOLOGY. This is a little device equipped with precision technology which uses the EGNOS satellite system to improve the positional accuracy and, with it, the safety of drones.

The European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service – or EGNOS for short – is designed to improve the performance of global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), such as GPS and Galileo, in safety-critical navigation services such as those used, for instance, in air transport. “TRACE is a trailblazing European project which will allow us to demonstrate the benefits of EGNOS, especially with regard to improving precision in the location of drones,” says Luis Gómez, General Manager of ALTER TECHNOLOGY. During the first flight of TRACE, 5G and long-range Bluetooth were tested in addition to EGNOS.

When combined with the required interfaces, this smart radio beacon, which was developed in Spain, communicates the location of drones with a high degree of precision, making it easier for the pilots of conventional aircraft to identify them, also at low altitudes – for instance during take-off and landing. “This is the only way for manned aircraft to coexist with these unmanned systems,” explains Carolina Jiménez, TRACE project manager at ALTER TECHNOLOGY.

After all, drones will very soon be flying out of visual range of their operators. “This will require the greatest possible precision to avoid potential accidents and similar issues,” says Jiménez . In the European Union, far from being a desirable optional extra, precision location is already mandatory, and the radio beacon meets the requirements of the European Drones Directive.

So, what does it look like, this innovation from ALTER TECHNOLOGY’s sci-fi laboratory? “The device’s design is confidential, so we aren’t allowed to reveal it,” says Carolina Jiménez by way of explanation of the absence of any photos of this innovation. Drones are going to be an important future market: the German government estimates their global economic potential in the next 20 years at anything up to 1.5 billion euros.