SINT-TRUIDEN, Belgium – On July 25, 2023, a large two-seat passenger drone transported heavy medical cargo through European airspace for the first time, adjacent to populated area. The drone flight, a completely unmanned and automated mission, transported ten blood bags over more than 1 kilometer distance at DronePort, close to the city of Sint-Truiden, Belgium. The operation and test flights were operated by Belgian company Helicus, which is known for developing drone applications and technologies for aerial medical transport.
Helicus was the first drone operator in Europe to successfully perform drone flights with human tissue and blood samples over populated areas in the EU, Beyond the Visual Line of Sight of the pilot (BVLOS). Today, a new milestone has been reached in European unmanned aviation by transporting large medical content using a passenger drone, an aircraft weighing over 600kg when fully loaded. The EH216 from drone manufacturer EHang Holdings Limited has as many as 16 electric motors, reaches a cruising speed of 130 km/h and has a maximum flight time of 30 minutes. In the past, the drone already demonstrated its ability to carry two passengers or a cargo of up to 220 kg.
Today, this beautiful passenger drone flew through the locally controlled airspace of DronePort to transport blood bags. The organization of this test flight was a collaboration between Helicus, EHang, DronePort and Blood Services of the Belgian Red Cross (French speaking community). The Belgian Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA), which had given prior approval for this operation following EU regulations, was also present to assess the course of the mission. The flight approval came after a stringent specific operational authorisation process that based itself on the maturity gained by operator Helicus over the last few years in unmanned flights as well as multiple day on site audits of the procedures. It was in fact the first time that a drone of such caliber was taken to the air in Belgium, while fully in line with the current legal framework of the European drone legislation (in effect as of 2020 and 2023).
As this was an unmanned, automated drone cargo flight, the passenger drone was controlled by a computer that followed a predefined flight path. Safety pilots on the ground were on standby as an additional safety measure to ensure a smooth and safe operation. An information interface enabled seamless data transfer between the Ehang passenger drone Ground Control Center and Operator Helicus’ Command & Control Center (C2C) that takes care of customer order entry and ensures the so-called U-Space services, including individual flight authorisations required by EU regulations.
“After three years of intensive preparation with strong partners, we are proud to bring this EU first.”, says Mikael Shamim, CEO of Helicus. “This flight was executed in line with EU legislation. It allowed us, as airline operator, and the civil aviation authorities, to build invaluable experiences, on how to safely handle this type of novel technology and operations”. Today marks an important milestone on the challenging path that will lead to widespread medical transport by drone in the years to come. Helicus is committed to provide societal useful services based on unmanned aviation technologies, with both smaller and larger drones. Since 2016 the company develops operational processes and specific automation solutions to safely operate a drone agnostic fleet from partner drone manufacturers.
“Drones make it possible to carry out complex missions of prime necessity with an efficiency that was previously unheard of, while at the same time being environmentally friendly and economical”, says Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Mobility Georges Gilkinet. “Some missions carried out by helicopter or light aircraft can now be carried out by drones, which greatly reduces the carbon footprint of these missions. This is why, as a public authority, we want to help the Belgian drone sector, by establishing a legal framework and developing simple, accessible procedures for those wishing to develop the sector.”
“The successful flight demonstrations that we witnessed makes me even more proud to call this my hometown and to be first alderwoman of this city,” says Hilde Vautmans, Member of the European Parliament. “It is a fantastic display of what innovation can achieve, when people and companies closely work together on a shared idea, with one common goal. This demonstration should make us feel very optimistic about how technologies and innovation can deliver on society’s social and medical needs in the future.”
The Investment Company LRM, together with the city of Sint-Truiden and JK Invest, are shareholders of DronePort. “This kind of complex and groundbreaking project is DronePort’s raison d’être,” claims Head of Investments of LRM and CEO ad interim of DronePort. “On our campus, we have all the facilities at hand to enable such test flights and achieve innovative milestones. Thanks in part to the enclosed and locally controlled test airspace, we are therefore the hotspot in Europe for companies looking to innovate in the aviation sector. We have a site of around 110ha of which we can further develop 30ha to attract new aviation companies to create additional job opportunities.”