SUCOM drone communication system: First test flights successfully completed

July 12, 2021

As the joint coordinator of the drone research project SUCOM (Superior UTM Communication System), the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute (HHI) integrated the communication system of the same name into a Wingcopter drone. The team then successfully tested the system in flight. It is the first time that simultaneous networking with the ground control station and the air situation display of air traffic control has been realized via a mobile radio-based communication system.

Drones offer immense potential for the logistics and mobility industry as well as for a wide range of other applications. In order to fully exploit this potential, drones must be able to operate beyond the line of sight of a controlling person. Conventional remote controls are not suitable for such applications due to their range limitations.

To meet the high safety requirements of aviation, drones must have a highly reliable communication system for transmitting safety-critical telemetry data (position, altitude, direction, speed, etc.) and other information (e.g. the drone's battery status). This information is primarily required in connection with Unmanned Aircraft Traffic Management systems (UTM) for the creation of aerial photographs. These aerial situation images make all aviation participants (manned and unmanned) visible in the airspace, which prevents potential conflicts. Therefore, air traffic control and drone pilots must know where the drone is at all times. If necessary, it must be possible to intervene in the flight control.

To achieve this goal, the SUCOM joint project is developing a communication system based on state-of-the-art 4G and 5G technology. Key aspects of this project are the use of multi-antenna systems and the optimization of the transmitted data streams.

In cooperation with the German Air Traffic Control (DFS) and Droniq GmbH, our researchers developed an interface to make drones equipped with the SUCOM system visible in the UTM, giving the ground station full access to the drone's flight control. Ralf Heidger, Program Manager UTM Development at DFS System House: "A reliable communication system is a basic requirement for the safe integration of drones into airspace. The SUCOM project brings together leading stakeholders from the German drone industry to develop a communication solution that can meet all requirements."

The SUCOM system has now been integrated into a drone from project partner Wingcopter, and initial tests have been successfully completed. The team first investigated whether the connection would also work in places where experience has shown that cellular coverage is poor. Carsten Ramke, engineer at Wingcopter, says: "We were surprised at how well the SUCOM system worked. In the past, we often had to deal with connection failures with comparable mobile communication systems in the location where we conducted our tests."

Together with its project partners Wingcopter GmbH, Emqopter GmbH and CiS GmbH, Fraunhofer HHI plans to test the reliability of the communication system by conducting a large number of test flights with more than 500 flight hours under real operating conditions.

Collaborative coordinator Tom Piechotta notes: "In upcoming tests, we want to test the limits of the system by flying particularly high, fast and in the most remote locations possible."

The SUCOM project is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) as part of a funding call for innovative drone projects with an amount of around 1.15 million euros. It started in August 2020 and will run until August 2022.