Sunny Skies Ahead

Unmanned aviation is taking off in a big way in Germany, with turnover in the sector expected to grow by billions over the next decade. International players have begun to take notice, particularly of an air mobility hub that is developing in the south.

March 2021

When most people think of Munich, what springs to mind are beer gardens, dirndls and Champions League football, not vertical-take-off-and-landing (VTOL) electric air taxis. But that’s precisely what Joby Aviation, a recent addition to the city’s business landscape, hopes to bring to the Bavarian capital.

This summer, the American eVTOL manufacturer (flush from a capital injection of USD 590 million from Japanese automotive giant Toyota) set up shop at a University of Munich special campus dedicated to flight systems and transportation planning. As this was Joby’s first expansion outside the US, regional know-how and government policy were major factors in the company’s choice of location.

The Bottom Line

The German unmanned flight (drone) sector is on course for massive growth in the coming years: opportunities abound for international companies wanting to get on board.

Bavarian drone hub taking off

“While the depth of the talent pool and the strength of the supply chain would be reason enough for Joby to have a base here, what really made an impression on us was how Bavaria, Germany and the European Union are leaning in on the challenges posed by climate change and on the incredible opportunity to create a carbon-free future for aviation,” says Joby’s founder Joe Ben Bevirt. “Bavaria has been a tremendous early advocate for the eVTOL sector, with programs like the Hightech Agenda and Ingolstadt’s Urban Air Mobility Initiative playing an important part in supporting the development of a strong air taxi market across Germany and Europe.”

Joby’s designs are kept top secret, but the new aircraft it envisions has been described in US media as a “cross between a drone and an air taxi.” In Munich, one the company’s closest neighbors is also one of its main competitors: Lilium Aviation, which is developing an air taxi that can be either piloted or theoretically used unmanned.

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Massive growth potential

Over the next decade, increasing numbers of drones of all descriptions will be buzzing around German skies. And while the majority may be diminutive in scale, they amount to a big business – one that’s growing larger by the day. The German Aviation Association (BDL) says that the German drone market is currently the world’s fourth largest and projects it will rise from its current EUR 574 million to nearly EUR 3 billion by 2030. That represents an annual growth rate of 14 percent. Some 4,000 companies and 10,000 employees already work in the sector.

“Unmanned air vehicles are useful to people in both megacities and regions with undeveloped infrastructure,” says Achim Friedl, chairman of the Association for Unmanned Flight (UAV DACH). “For that reason, the civilian drone economy will grow disproportionately all over the world. Drones help open up innovative business models and improve production, logistics mobility and security.”

Unmanned flight can also help to decarbonize aviation, Friedl adds. Potential uses for drones, aside from air taxis, include surveying/data collection and the transportation of goods – to name just two. Overall, unmanned aviation is a market where international specialists can find a niche with relative ease.

“The use of drones is being explored conceptually and tested out,” says Friedl. “The business community and German industry are prepared for this, but they still need proven experts for unmanned flight.”

Three Major Drone Applications

Data collection: This includes tasks like surveying, inspection and cartography. Almost 80% of users employ drones, some of which can be equipped with infrared devices, for these purposes. Experts say the potential for saving time and money is enormous.

Film and photography: Aerial footage is becoming increasingly affordable and widely used in film, television and video. It accounts for 35% of drone users. Companies like Digicopter and Dronebrothers have sprung up to service the growing demand.

Transport and logistics: Air taxis make the headlines, but it’s likely that delivery drones will be integrated into everyday life sooner, especially given the explosion of online retail. At present, only around 5% of drone operators use them for transport.

Openings for start-ups

It’s no surprise, then, that the German government is also throwing its weight behind the sector. In May 2021, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) is set to open a national testing center for unmanned civilian aviation systems at an underused regional airport in the eastern German town of Cochstedt.

“The German government sees the opportunities that result from the future-oriented markets of civilian drones and urban air mobility,” said National Aerospace Coordinator Thomas Jarzombek in a statement back in 2020. “We want to give companies, particularly start-ups, the chance to participate in this new high-tech market. With the testing center, we want to lay the foundations for getting drone applications out of the laboratory and into the field.”

With government support for innovative companies, all is clear for lift-off in this exciting, cutting-edge sector.

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