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Digital Estonia in the air

With 100,000 inhabitants, Tartu is the perfect example of how new quality can be created out of the synergy between research institutes, innovative companies and local government, even within a field traditionally considered the home ground of the big league – aviation.

Tartu has set a goal: to be among the first hundred climate neutral cities in Europe by 2030. Contributing to that goal is the development of environmentally friendly aviation, which has really gained momentum in recent years. Like the flourishing and integrated community in the local startup scene, there is great collaboration in the aviation sector because Tartu has all the preconditions for a success story. The trump card is local infrastructure, an underused airport and airspace that is located next to the only higher education institution that provides aviation education in Estonia, and the diverse partner network united in the ZeroEST climate neutral development centre.

Soon, drones using hydrogen fuel and orientating in a digitally mapped space could fly around the Tartu region as couriers of medical supplies thanks to this enterprise.

Deputy Mayor of Tartu, Raimond Tamm says they plan to map the entire network of opportunities in order to find out which conditions need to be met for the drones to offer services. Many questions need to be taken into account regarding future regulations: where to land the unmanned air transport, what their flight height and flying time should be, what possible noise pollution would create and so on. In addition to the Estonian Aviation Academy (ELA) – the only institution to train qualified workforce for the aviation sector in the country – the University of Tartu contributes by developing technologies linked to unmanned vehicles and providing extensive know-how in the field of hydrogen.

Maiken Kull, Vice Rector of Development at ELA, emphasises two innovative projects. Funded by the European Space Agency and led by SKYCORP, Space4UAM evaluates the main services helping to coordinate air traffic of habited areas in a safe and effective way. Additionally, they study the use of space technology for this aim. “Tartu is one of the few cities that enables a test environment to try out such services,” says Kull. In addition, the Estonian Aviation Academy collaborates with the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences in developing the remote monitoring R&D centre of the latter. The focus of ELA is on developing the implementation concept of unmanned air transport systems, automation of aviation activity, coordination and usage of air space.

The journey towards digital aviation

There are companies contributing to climate friendly aviation next to the academies. SKYCORP, mentioned above, is one of the few companies in the world developing drones powered by hydrogen fuel. The founder and CEO Marek Alliksoo explains that this direction came from the technological necessity to make the drones fly longer: “By mapping solar parks or agricultural land from the air, we save time and money because the drone can do two-week’s work in just a few minutes.”

Having started drone flights in 2017, the company’s piloting role also benefits larger enterprises because the collected data and experience is scalable. Thus SKYCORP has grown into one of the builders of the local aviation ecosystem. The functioning of this ecosystem is more efficient due to the fact that all counterparts are situated within an 8-kilometre radius.

ZeroEST, the development centre uniting the companies, research institutions and local government, has mapped the journey of reaching carbon neutral aviation by 2030 step by step. Already today, the centre offers complex opportunities for companies from abroad to test their products and services. This invitation has received a positive response. The leading US digital aviation company ANRA Technologies opened its European headquarters in Tartu this year. The company creates technologies for digital architecture, digital air space and integrated systems. This enables the movement of autonomous air vehicles from point A to point B.

After Brexit, the company once active in the United Kingdom, looked for ways to settle in the European Union. The choice was Estonia, which according to Vice President and Head of Global Operations Brent Klavon, is characterised by an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit. “The small size of Estonia means that it is much easier to make connections in the field of business on a personal level and they, in turn, form the basis for efficient collaboration,” says Klavon. Unlike in other larger European countries, things do not get stuck in excessive bureaucracy in Estonia and the opportunity to access decision-makers (even ministers) is usually just a phone call away.

The Head of Estonian Aviation Cluster Kristo Reinsalu also emphasises that Estonian agility creates a competitive edge: “We are able to react more or less overnight and offer new solutions.” He claims that international aviation companies appreciate this as they sense that in Estonia business moves faster than elsewhere.

“The day will come when we accept digitalised air space as normal, because it enables us to deliver packages and to transport people in flying taxis. And not just in Estonia, also across borders,” says Klavon painting a picture of the not-so-distant future.

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