ein gelber Hubschrauber mit mehrerer Rotoren

In future, ADAC Air Rescue will use multicopters to get to the scene faster and extend the range of its rescue teams. Research operations are to be launched in two trial regions by the beginning of 2025.

| ADAC Luftrettung / Volocopter
2024-07-01 VDE dialog

Research: Fast track to the real world

Real-world laboratories are encouraged and supported as a means of testing research projects directly in practice. This can lead to innovations making their way into everyday life much faster. However, it is not yet clear which rules apply in these labs.

By Manuel Heckel

Things are in motion both in the air and on the ground at Frankfurt Airport, which plans to have 1,200 electric vehicles in operation by 2026 – from cars, vans and buses to special handling vehicles. Over the next three years, the airport’s operator will also be experimenting with bidirectional charging. Here, electricity flows not only from charging stations to vehicle batteries, but vice versa as well.

The hope is that using vehicles as electricity storage units will make it possible to better compensate for generation and consumption peaks. The project is being supported by several partners, with the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK) providing funding and Hamburg’s electricity grid operator developing the necessary software. The electrical engineering and economics departments at the Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences are dealing with the technical and economic issues involved.

This forward-thinking project is taking place amidst the hustle-and-bustle of a very busy airport that handles over 1,000 take-offs and landings and nearly 150,000 passengers every day. Its research has been explicitly designed as a “real-world laboratory” – a format that is increasingly being used at the interface between science and practice. “A real-world laboratory is ideally suited to the application-oriented research we do on energy topics at the Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences together with industry partners,” says electrical engineering professor Ingo Jeromin.

View of the “Neue Weststadt” city district

The Swabian town of Esslingen has created the “Neue Weststadt” research district, which it plans to build and maintain as a climate-neutral residential area. Credit: Maximilian Kamps / Agentur Blumberg GmbH

| Maximilian Kamps / Agentur Blumberg GmbH

Testing ideas in reality instead of on paper

The potential of real-world laboratories is huge. The idea is that innovations can be tested directly in the real world instead of in laboratories or on paper. This enables researchers and companies to immediately recognize and adapt to the obstacles that new products or processes encounter in practice. The concept is therefore a scientific version of a development process that is popular in the start-up world: instead of tinkering endlessly with details, such companies sometimes bring half-finished ideas or designs to market in order to carry out further work based on user reactions.

The concept was praised this spring by the Expert Commission for Research and Innovation (EFI), a scientific body that advises the German government. This came with a healthy amount of fundamental criticism in the EFI's annual report, however. “Some of the basic conditions for research and innovation are no longer up to date,” said Uwe Cantner, commission chair and professor of economics at the University of Jena, at the presentation of the report. In order to change this, the scientists proposed a series of initiatives (see info box),

urging a stronger focus on real-world laboratories in particular. “This can noticeably shorten the long path innovations often take to commercialization,” the report states. As technologies revolutionize more and more current processes and technical progress continues to accelerate, early findings from everyday life will be all the more significant. In areas such as autonomous driving, alternative mobility concepts, new energy systems and artificial intelligence, real-world laboratories make it easier to test possible future scenarios today.

To-do list for the German federal government

2024-07-01 VDE dialog

In areas ranging from social science to engineering, the six-member Expert Commission for Research and Innovation (EFI) has been monitoring innovation research in Germany since 2008. The EFI submits a report to the federal government once a year, most recently at the end of February.

Read more

A familiar concept gets a new lease on life

The basic concept of real-world labs is not new. It was created around twelve years ago in the field of transformative sustainability research, as Oliver Parodi explains. Parodi is a research group leader at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and a spokesperson for the Reallabore der Nachhaltigkeit (“Real-world Laboratories for Sustainability”) network, which brings together over 200 members from the German-speaking countries. In the last five years, the concept has been increasingly adapted by federal and state ministries, with the focus narrowing a bit more towards the technological perspective. However, its popularity is steadily increasing, notes Parodi: “Real-world laboratories are a success story that’s become part of the world of science; they're supported and in demand.”

That said, the exact requirements and operating conditions for real-world laboratories still often differ. Those in the field are therefore eagerly awaiting a corresponding law that is currently being drafted by the BMWK. In its annual report, the EFI called for the “prompt introduction of the real-world laboratory law”. Germany's coalition government had already announced its intention to do so in its pre-election agreement. In response to a concept for the proposed law that was published last year, over 400 institutions and organizations submitted their own statements. The BMWK, responding to a question from VDE dialog, says it is currently working on the relevant draft legislation: “The draft bill is due to be presented this summer.”

Laboratories thrive on experimentation

Many observers from science and industry are particularly curious about the question of how the so-called experimentation clauses should be legally structured in the future. These clauses form the core of many real-world laboratory projects. After all, if you want to try out innovative concepts in everyday life, you don't work under laboratory conditions you have created yourself. The obstacles you might run into are many, and various. “Real-world laboratories thrive on experimentation,” says Parodi. “In many cases, this gets so bogged down by existing rules, laws or standards that it’s barely possible.”

The experimentation clauses ensure that research projects can be implemented within an existing legal framework. “You try to suspend certain rules in a controlled manner for a certain period of time,” Parodi explains. Such exceptions are already enshrined in laws at the federal level. For example, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles is regulated in the Air Traffic Regulations, which is key for drone projects. Some additional paragraphs of the Road Traffic Act make it possible to test automated and autonomous driving functions. And a separate paragraph of the Energy Industry Act ensures that, in some regions of the country, it is possible to test how electricity grids can cope with large quantities of renewable energy.

An autonomous transport vehicle drives over cobblestones

Solutions for last-mile logistics are being tested and continuously developed in Bruchsal. Credit: efeuCampus Bruchsal GmbH

| efeuCampus Bruchsal GmbH

The forthcoming Real-World Laboratory Act could clarify how such experimentation clauses are incorporated into the respective specialist regulations. The EFI Commission advocates the broadest possible exemptions, meaning they should not refer to a specific real-world laboratory project. Otherwise they will be more likely to become obsolete after a relatively short time, as Parodi points out. His network, on the other hand, is calling for a more cautious introduction – and clear time limits of four to five years. According to Parodi, the legal canon as a whole needs to be examined in order to enable and ensure sustainability. “We have to think very carefully about what’s worth protecting in the long term and what isn’t. A major social discourse is needed on this subject.”

Bureaucratic and organizational hurdles

Also under discussion is the question of how real-world laboratories can be supported right from the start. By definition, they have to serve numerous disciplines and require a wide variety of skills. This includes everything from scientific expertise and legal advice on the experimentation clauses to public relations work involving affected companies and citizens. “Real-world laboratory work is a complex matter that requires a lot of experience and sensitivity. You have to speak different languages at the same time,” says Parodi. None of this happens automatically. Different project partners have different aims and interests, and participating companies may have different priorities than the scientists involved. Agreeing on common goals is “not at all a trivial matter,” Parodi continues. “And a real-world laboratory can't come to life and bear fruit until that happens.”

One possible approach to circumventing at least the organizational hurdles at hand is to have a central point of contact. This helps projects and organizations obtain information, network with one another and quickly find the people they need to talk to. In North Rhine-Westphalia, Digi-Sandbox.NRW has been serving in this role since the end of 2021. It now comprises over 80 real-world laboratories between East Westphalia and the Belgian border.

In the future, a portal of this kind is to be created for all of Germany. A “one-stop shop” is planned which, according to the BMWK, will be set up “in a lean manner with minimal bureaucracy”. According to the original schedule, it was supposed to launch this year, but the BMWK has since announced that the work on building the portal will now commence in the late fall of 2024. Pilot operations could then start in spring 2025 and gather experience for three to four years.

If this exchange across disciplines is successful, great leaps could be made in comparatively short periods of time. The real-world laboratory for bidirectional charging at Frankfurt Airport, for example, has set itself an ambitious timetable. In its first twelve months (starting from the beginning of 2024), the main focus will be on analyzing the current situation and preparing the technical planning.

But it won't stop there. The data obtained in the process will enable the “development of practical solutions as opposed to purely theoretical or simulation-based approaches,” says Sebastian Herold, professor of energy management at the Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences. In the following three years, up to 90 stations for bidirectional charging are to be built at the airport.

Manuel Heckel is a freelance business journalist from Cologne.

VDE dialog - the technology magazine