Unmanned aircraft are all the rage. They are more commonly known as "drones", a term that actually comes from the military and that Werner Mayr, Managing Director of the geodata company Germap from Welzheim in the Stuttgart Region, thus chooses not to use to describe his industry. Germap is one of the few companies in the world to manufacture UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, and to use these for specific purposes in order to record and evaluate three-dimensional terrain models or other spatial data from aerial images.
There is a very wide range of different applications for this work. For example, landfill operators or the head of a railway conversion project need to see and document local changes. Archaeological sites, too, can be analysed more easily on the basis of precise recordings from the air, and the dimensions of cultural artefacts such as the UNESCO-protected Göltzschtalbrücke bridge in Saxony can only be recorded with a bird's eye view.
Werner Mayr founded the company, which currently employs five people, two years ago. Before that time, he spent 30 years working as a surveyor at different companies, always returning to the field of UAVs. Germap focuses on the manufacture of fixed wing aircraft: They are operated electronically and need less energy than the more commonly used multicopters, which the company also has in its portfolio.
"The vast majority of companies manufacture copters. But these have a very short flight time. Our aircraft can stay in the air for up to 45 minutes and can cover larger areas of ground," says Mayr. Mayr explains that a model maker, a software developer and an engineer were involved in developing a camera with wings. "To build the UAVs, we use regular model planes and integrate electronics and software in them," explains the Managing Director.
And at the end of the day, a pilot has to steer the aircraft, albeit from the ground instead of on board. "When someone buys the system from us, we insist on a three-day training session which is included in the price. In principle, anyone can learn quickly how to use the system. We teach semi-automatic flight control", says Mayr.
Not only are Germap's UAVs easy to operate, the small fixed wing aircraft are also ultra-light and can even fit in a rucksack, depending on their size. This means that even remote areas can be accessed. There are just some security-related and legal restrictions that apply to the use of UAVs. "For example, unmanned aircraft can only be used within view and in the daytime", according to the Managing Director.
Germap not only sells its products in Germany, but also has customers in Moldavia, Hong Kong, Russia, the Netherlands and Mexico. For example, Germap supplied a Mexican surveying firm that does a lot of work in the area of open pit mining. Building on steep slopes in a region that is repeatedly subject to monsoons requires precise recordings of small-scale spaces. Recording images of cooling towers, electricity masts or bridges also requires a close-up approach in a small space. "At the moment there are very few firms around the world that offer such a service", says Mayr. There is no question of the demand for this service. Manned aircraft are only economically viable for areas larger than 200 to 300 square kilometres.
Germap wants to expand further and extend the sale and marketing of its UAVs, as at present most of the orders still involve the evaluation and recording of area image data. Another innovative project involves fitting the multicopters with special cameras that allow the filming of scenes, for example for advertising films. But first it's time to take care of day-to-day operations. In Welzheim, there are plans to expand an industrial park: a difficult feat without top-quality aerial images.