Category: Innovation infrastructure
With its center of gravity at Unmanned Valley in Valkenburg (ZH), the drone community in the Netherlands has taken impressive flight over the past years. Preconditions such as the availability of advanced expertise in sensor and aerospace technology, the extensive high-tech community and the leading position in computer science and cybersecurity naturally positioned the drone community in greater Rotterdam – The Hague for success.
The local maritime & offshore, logistics, healthcare and horticulture industries, eager to optimize their operations with new innovations, provide the customer proximity necessary for business acceleration. Dedicated government investments in testing, demonstration, training and education facilities support the business community in its growth ambitions.
Fertile soil for business growth
Unmanned Valley, based at the former naval airbase Valkenburg, is located outside controlled airspace (CTR) of active airports and has its own airport regulation and airport master. This makes it the only location in the Netherlands where drones can be flown for test purposes continuously and flexibly, 24/7. A wide range of testing and demo facilities are available at Unmanned Valley, from in and outdoor flight area’s and makerspace, to various IoT-networks, including KPN’s unique available 5G network and an experimental, state-of-the-art 5G communication infrastructure offered at the test facilities of Unmanned Valley in collaboration with the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) and TNO (the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research) – initiated Do IoT Fieldlab.
“The drone community in this region has been growing at exceptional speed in the last couple of years,” says Theo de Vries, program manager at Unmanned Valley.
The drone community is clearly maturing, with drone technology itself advancing into the higher TRL-levels. Thanks to the close ties to the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering at TU Delft and the MavLab (Micro Air Vehicle Laboratory), which is part of the TU Delft Robotics Institute, the local drone cluster has a major lead in drone design and operating technology. The spill-over of expertise from these institutes in the drone companies at Unmanned Valley is clear.
Located just a few kilometres from Unmanned Valley is European Space Agency’s technical centre ESTEC and the NL Space Campus, home to numerous space-related businesses working with downstream satellite data. Downstream data is essential for drone navigation (from GPS), but the enormous variety of available data also provide a wealth of opportunities for commercial application of remote sensing technology. Think of data from satellites measuring conditions such as air pollution and sea levels. Drones, equipped with sensors and precision cameras amplify these data, creating valuable synergy between the drone and space community for commercial and research applications alike.
The Netherlands as a beacon for system integrity
System integrity is pivotal for drone operators, considering the potential damage that can be caused either by obtaining control over the operating system itself, or the data generated by the application for which the drone is used.
3 major benefits, related to system integrity, come with being part of the business community in greater Rotterdam – The Hague. First of all, consider the Netherlands’ reputation as a reliable, stable and neutral country for doing business, with a clean track record when it comes to digital espionage. Second, think of the strict privacy regulations in Europe, enforcing compliance in any product made here. And third, the world-leading cybersecurity community, concentrated in The Hague, which is capable of delivering top of the bill cybersecurity solutions to secure systems at any desired classification.
New regulations to support drone businesses
The real benefit of drones lies in their potential to operate fully autonomously. To reap that benefit, Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations must be enabled. European and Dutch regulations restrain that at the moment. “We are on the brink of making that possible here at Unmanned Valley, and over a corridor along the North Sea coast. BVLOS is possible at some other locations in the world, but what is unique in the Netherlands is the population density, making safety protocols many times more acute. In other words: if you can make it here; you can make it everywhere. That makes this location interesting for drone companies that aim to scale their business on the global market. On the shorter term coastline inspections, high-value parts delivery to oil platforms, environmental inspections and medical deliveries will be made possible by BVLOS ” Explains Theo.
Immense commercial potential
As a result of drone technology maturing, the community is exploring its commercial potential. New business models such as ‘inspection as a service’ for e.g. the offshore wind industry are emerging, bringing enormous benefits to that industry in terms of cost savings, employee safety and – as a result – increased intervals of inspection, leading to more predictable maintenance.
Atmos is currently optimizing one of its products for inspection of offshore solar parks. “We are co-developing this application with our customer Oceans of Energy, a fast-growing company that developed the worlds first offshore solar energy park.” Says Ruud Knoops, co-founder of Atmos. “Oceans of Energy sees major benefits in optical drone inspection as a replacement of current manual inspection, which involves sending employees over to the offshore location by boat. Like all offshore locations, the solar parks regularly face heavy wind, making manual inspection a risky and inefficient enterprise.”
Another promising area for commercial application of drone technology lies in inventory management. “I recently spoke to an entrepreneur who mentioned that he gets paid by the box. His service is counting boxes, using drones” Says Theo. In other words, the business potential in these industries is huge, and we have only yet scratched the top of that iceberg.” elaborates Theo. “The vicinity of Katwijk to a diversity of industrial clusters is invaluable for the community and we, as a cluster organization are ideally positioned to match the drone community with potential customers in the region.”