Urban air mobility (UAM) offers more than just novel ways to transport goods; it presents entirely new avenues for sustainable mobility solutions. In the Fraunhofer ALBACOPTER Lighthouse Project, six Fraunhofer institutes have united to address the technical and societal challenges linked with UAM. Spearheaded by the Fraunhofer Institute for Transportation and Infrastructure Systems IVI, researchers have developed an aircraft inspired by the albatross, designed for remarkably efficient gliding. This innovation and other highlights will be showcased at the joint Fraunhofer booth (D11, Hall B1) during the IAA MOBILITY trade show in Munich from September 5 to 8, 2023.

UAM entails stringent requirements for aircraft and system technology, particularly the need for safe, quiet VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) systems that deliver powerful propulsion performance during hovering.

Challenges in Urban Air Transportation: Electric multicopters offer VTOL agility while meeting safety and environmental standards. However, their limited range and payload capacity due to low efficiency and energy storage densities hinder their utility. While larger wings could enhance energy efficiency by enabling gliding, they present challenges for take-off and landing in urban areas. Autonomous VTOL flight, a necessity for UAM’s financial viability, introduces safety concerns associated with AI-based control systems.

The Fraunhofer ALBACOPTER Lighthouse Project: To address these challenges, the Fraunhofer consortium initiated the ALBACOPTER Lighthouse Project in 2021. Its aim was to create a flying platform combining multicopter agility with glider-like efficiency. Prof. Matthias Klingner, project manager and director of Fraunhofer IVI, emphasizes the ALBACOPTER’s distinctive features, including sustainable materials, high-performance propulsion systems, advanced multi-sensor systems, and an AI-based autopilot.

Recyclable Design and Innovative Propulsion Solutions: The Fraunhofer Institute for Structural Durability and System Reliability LBF designed the ALBACOPTER’s structure and aerodynamic components. Sustainable materials, including biopolymer hard foam for transportation containers and pultruded fiber-reinforced thermoplastics for the space frame fuselage, enable recyclability. The propulsion system employs high-speed synchronous motors with multi-stage transmission and high power density, an efficient alternative to direct drives, developed by Fraunhofer ICT.

Safety Through Cutting-Edge Sensors and AI: To ensure safety, the ALBACOPTER utilizes robust, lightweight, high-performance multi-sensor systems and single-photon LiDAR detectors developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Microelectronic Circuits and Systems IMS. AI systems facilitate semantic 3D environmental reconstruction, enabling innovative functions like autonomous (emergency) landing. A fail-safe RISC-V on-board electrical system architecture, continuous monitoring, stable 5G communication, and a redundant autopilot system meet high reliability requirements for UAM.

Autonomous Operation: The ALBACOPTER serves as a demonstrator for Fraunhofer technologies anticipated to gain prominence in the aerospace and logistics sectors over the next five to eight years. It validates VTOL technologies, including hybrid copter-gliders and multicopters with retractable wings and pivoting rotors. The research involves extensive testing using flight models, wind tunnels, iron bird test rig structures, and XiL system simulations.

A scaled version with a 7-meter wingspan and a payload capacity of around 25 kilograms will launch in fall 2023, with comprehensive flight tests slated for early 2024. The ALBACOPTER represents a significant step toward sustainable and efficient urban air mobility.

By Impact Lab