Swiss drones conquer the world

The time has come for drones. ETH Zurich’s world-class reputation with its research into mobile drones is now paying off as Zurich increasingly becomes a magnet for industry leaders – and the cradle of innovation.

Drone balloon from the Zurich start up AEROTAIN

Drones from Zurich delivered a sensational wow-effect over the first hot weekend in September. A drone balloon from the start up Aerotain hovered above the heads of 40,000 people at the Stade de Suisse football stadium in Bern.

“Our drones are considered to be the safest in the world,” said Aerotain co-founder Daniel Meier. Called the Zeppelin drone, it features a propeller-controlled balloon that can be adorned with logos or lighting moods. Filled with helium and non-combustible, the system remains in the air even during an emergency.

This is but one of many innovations that demonstrate where Zurich stands in the field of mobile robotics: at the forefront worldwide. And the seeds – sown by the long-term research at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich – are growing precisely here.

The drones are coming!

Experts agree that the economy is on the brink of a drone boom now that technologies are becoming more and more sophisticated and key components are becoming more and more affordable.

The American market research firm Gartner calculated that 2.1 million drones were sold last year – and that figure is expected to rise to 3 million this year. In the commercial sector alone, sales of drones are expected to climb to $11.2 billion in the coming years, nearly doubling.

ETH a hotbed for innovation

This is good news for the offshoots growing out of the Autonomous Systems Lab (ASL) at ETH Zurich, which is led by the robotics researcher Roland Siegwart. With his research, he has made not only a decisive contribution to the development of autonomous mobile robots – his commitment has made the ASL an internationally renowned hotbed for innovation.

It is a place where basic research is conducted and tinkered around with to determine its usability for real-world applications. And tangible results can be seen: in the past 20 years, around a dozen spin-offs have emerged from his lab.

Aerotain also has its roots in the ASL as it is where Daniel Meier began working on his Zeppelin principle as a student in 2011. The initial goal was to develop a safe and agile drone in cooperation with the Disney Research Zurich laboratory.

“Over the course of the development process, we realized that our balloon system is capable of producing not only sensational images, but it also has considerable potential for advertisements or showy effects,” said Meier. For example, a huge spacecraft drone took to the skies to promote the latest Star Trek series. The ETH spin-off became its own company three years ago.

Playing off traditional strengths

It is obvious just which ETH Zurich strengths sowed the seeds for such success. Robotics requires systematic thinking; it needs experts with knowledge in electric engineering, computer science and mechanical engineering – all disciplines that enjoy great importance at ETH Zurich.

One focus here is on mobile robots like drones. According to ASL director Siegwart, a good part of the 12 ETH professors in robotics deal with this subject. “The air is the perfect place to test the capabilities of a system without people getting in the way,” he said.

At the same time, these devices receive tasks both in the air and on the ground, making intelligent systems increasingly more important in this context as they can make use of high-performance sensors.

As Siegwart explained: “We are now among the top three when it comes to areas such as visual perception or localization. Not only research but also industry in Switzerland is in an excellent position here.”

Perfect ecosystem for drones

The Zurich region benefits tremendously from this reputation and knowledge, and it is no wonder for people like Siegwart that Google, Apple, Facebook or the sports camera manufacturer GoPro operate here. “The ETH environment attracts experts in the field, and innovative companies urgently need skilled specialists.”

Google and GoPro, for example, have long-term partnerships with the ASL and finance doctoral positions. And while neither company has exclusive access to research results, the collaboration still pays off. “They are close to the pulse of research and have direct contact to the best specialists,” said Siegwart.

But why are independent start-ups in this sector growing so rapidly in Switzerland given the small domestic market? As Siegwart explains: “The short distances from pilot project to approval makes their work considerably easier. They can also cooperate with industry giants, and potentially merge with them. Swiss companies like SBB, the Post and Swisscom in particular are known for helping innovative ideas prove themselves in practice.”

Aerotain co-founder Meier mentions the support of the renowned Gebert Rüf Foundation, which provides the company with financial resources and business experience. His company is also the first resident of the new Innovation Park in Zurich Dübendorf. Located on a former airfield, it allows Aerotain to develop and exhibit in one place.

“In general, Zurich offers us the perfect ecosystem,” Meier said.

Growth needs specialists

Ultimately, sharp minds are also the biggest capital for growing startups, as can be seen in Wingtra, a spin-off whose idea grew out of an ETH focus project and was then funded by the Wyss Translational Center Zurich.

Launched in early 2017, its WingtraOne drone has already sold around 50 units. The technology is unique: drones can take off and land vertically like a helicopter, but they fly forward as efficiently as an airplane.

The company was established by four founders at the end of 2014 and now has just over 30 staff. As co-founder Basil Weibel said: “We are an interdisciplinary team from the fields of business, international relations, robotics, mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering and design. As such, we benefit from the excellent Zurich and other Swiss universities.”

Picture: WingtraOne for Professional Mapping and Surveying

WingtraOne is now helping customers from the surveying industry or agriculture analyse surface areas much faster and more cost-effectively than before. And it recently announced a sales partnership with China and the U.S., contributing even further to Zurich’s worldwide reputation.

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