An interview for TRANSFER magazine with entrepreneur Dr. Csaba Singer
Image you could analyze any location on Earth from the stratosphere, or closer, using a device that works on wind and solar energy. Imagine internet access and communication throughout the whole world at a much lower cost, creating much less space junk than is possible with current satellites. Imagine economical, unmanned aircraft completing the kinds of extended missions that currently have to be undertaken by manned helicopters and airplanes. To do this, the solution would need to be adapted – and adaptable. This was the challenge taken on by Dr. Csaba Singer with an unmanned aerospace system called h-aero®. Singer was invited to the #techourfuture event in Sinsheim as an expert guest. We met up with him for an interview for TRANSFER magazine.
Hello Dr. Singer. You’re already achieving some visionary things with your aerospace system. Why do you believe it’s important to inform society about future technologies in parallel to your work, and make sure others are on board?
Similar to becoming disenchanted with politics, people can become disenchanted with technology, and this can hamper emerging technology achieving widespread adoption. People have a tendency to be skeptical about change – unless, that is, something new results in something becoming much easier. That’s exactly what I believe you have to show people … that “something new” also does something valuable for society and is useful for every individual – and that fuels acceptance. But to do that, you also have to explain things to people because new technology often comes hand in hand with even more complexity, so it isn’t necessarily understandable to some people.
What kinds of concerns do you encounter in your work regarding emerging technology?
Reservations about our technology aren’t so much the problem. If anything, the problem we have relates to people’s reservations about the drone technology of our competitors. There’s something threatening about their technology; drones are loud and there’s a feeling that people are being watched or spied on. Then there were the questions we were asked at #techourfuture in Sinsheim: Why are you even allowed to fly over people? And what’s the difference between your flying device and a drone? You could see this as a kind of prejudice, but that’s precisely why we always take demonstration materials with us so we can explain things to people and try to allay their fears.
Do you also encounter the same fears people have with drones, that your carriers could be misused?
Not yet, no. But of course this is an important issue for us: How can we arrange our sales model so that we know where our carriers are being used and what they’re being used for? One thing we have been asked is if the carrier can be shot down, and what would happen then. Interestingly, the issues are more about how the carrier functions and not really what it might end up doing. What this shows is that the technology isn’t well-known enough. I could even imagine the majority of people comparing our technology to a children’s balloon or something like that – rather than a satellite or carrier system operating in the space between satellites and unmanned aircraft.
Which requirements are already met by your h-aero®, and what are your visions for the future?
The h-aero® is an all-rounder; it can carry different kinds of loads and be used in a wide variety of regions and conditions. At the moment, we’re focusing on industrial inspection indoors. We’re joining forces with other partners to work on concepts. The system is in a position to work out distances between people, and in times of the COVID-19 pandemic it can issue warnings via loudspeakers. Another application scenario is carrying out inspections on tankers. Until now people have had to climb down into the inside of vessels through hatches and despite poisonous gases, inspect welding seals after oil has been let out.
One thing we can’t do with the h-aero®, and we’ll probably never do, is use it to rescue people after avalanches. Drones are much more weatherproof for doing that, so they’re also much more universal. For example they can carry thermal cameras to spot heat traces and zoom in on areas where someone’s buried under snow.
But if you think more about future application scenarios, you could even move into satellite systems, just at a lower altitude. The ESA has been releasing Sentinel satellite data via the Copernicus program. It’s open data and some of it goes down to a pixel resolution of five meters. Our system offers significant added value when it comes to earth observation. For example, it can watch bush fires, predict harvests, or be used for pest control purposes in forests. These examples also point to one of the dilemmas we face. We have so many application options that we keep getting questions from all kinds of people. But we need to focus. At the moment we’re concentrating on events and the media. We also want to do this to promote public acceptance for our technology. When an h-aero® flies over a city, ideally that already generates a certain degree of awareness among the population.
You can then kill two birds with one stone. You have a use case, and at the same time you generate awareness and this creates acceptance among the general public.
We’re consciously doing it this way, even if we can’t always get this message across to investors. Ultimately, we’d like to highlight how important public acceptance is in establishing emerging technology in the long term. A good example of this at the moment is nuclear energy. Public acceptance hasn’t played a role in establishing this technology until now. And now we’re seeing what happens as a result. At the same time we’re seeing how important a lack of public acceptance is compared to the actual potential of a technology. For example, wind farms also offer huge potential in cities. But if the urban population doesn’t accept this technology, at the end of the day no wind farms will be built. Political attention is clearly focusing on the next elections.
It’s interesting that you’re focusing specifically on acceptance. There are lots of recent examples that show public attitudes aren’t seen as a priority.
This also has something to do with the fact that I wrote my PhD at the German Aerospace Center, at the Institute of Engineering Thermodynamics (ITT), and later at the Institute of Solar Research in Stuttgart. The ITT has been awarded lots of contracts by the Federal Government to look more closely into the topics of sustainability, renewable energy sources, and social acceptance. But another thing that makes this important has to be that the specific technology we’re dealing with here is of a more general nature – we’re plucking technology from different fields to develop a new flying concept.
If resources were no object, what invention would mean the most to you on a personal level?
Wow, that’s a great question. The spontaneous answer would have to be a beaming device, and the ITER fusion reactor – that wouldn’t be bad. In terms of time scales, given the lifespan of the human species, I wouldn’t expect to benefit from this much myself though. As a young business founder, I’d like to get h-aero® technology to the point whereby our carriers can be used for a tenth of the cost of satellite technology and make earth observation and industrial processes much more straightforward and less expensive. This is our area of focus at the moment. I’ll keep all the other patents I’ve got going around in my head to myself for the time being!
THE H-AERO® FLYING SYSTEM
h-aero® is an unmanned aerospace system that pulls together the traditional concepts of airplanes, helicopters, and balloons to eliminate the drawbacks of such systems. The aerospace system is made from hi-tech materials (fiber composites, canvas, and high-density foil). The aircraft has solar cells mounted above and below the large hull, and it can be flown on autonomous missions around the clock. In an emergency, the structure functions like a parachute. CEO Dr. Csaba Singer already broke even with his hybrid airplane – still a fledgling, yet already the winner of multiple prices – in the second quarter of 2019, despite his company, Hybrid-Airplane Technologies GmbH, only operating in civilian markets. The firm is part of an initiative called #1000Solutions, which was launched by the aviation pioneer Prof. Bertrand Piccard as part of the Solar Impulse Foundation. The Solar Impulse Foundation pursues the Global Goals of the UN with the aim of solving key international problems sustainably. Solar Thermal Energy Systems, the Steinbeis Transfer Center run by Csaba Singer, also offers solar thermal plant development, holistic energetic consulting, computer-aided component development, business coaching, seminars, and lectures on solarthermics.
Dr.-Ing. Csaba Singer (author)
Steinbeis Transfer Center Solar Thermal Energy Systems (Baden-Baden)