The well-known fighter pilot E.V. Rickenbacker predicted flying autos within 20 years back in the 1920’s (July 1924 issue of ‘Popular Science’,) which turned out to be somewhat off the mark. Over 90 years later technology still has not been able to achieve this nor is it likely to. That is because passenger drones will make Rickenbacker’s vision a reality, not flying cars which are improbable. They might be in the skies within the next 10 years and will combine a mixture of driving, ridesharing, and drone engineering technologies.
The drones will be fully automated as getting flying licences would be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive for potential consumers. Much of the spadework has already been completed in terms of developing the technology. Google, Tesla, Uber and other autonomous car manufacturers have made big strides in the field with self-driving cars requiring no human supervision on the near horizon (3-5 years away.) The same sensors, machine learning algorithms, and safety systems can be incorporated for use in the drones with less likelihood of accidents as there would be many less obstacles and barriers to circumvent in the skies as opposed to on the roads.
Ridesharing or ‘sky taxis’ will make the venture commercially viable as only the very rich would be able to afford their own passenger drone. Riders will probably book drones on their smart phones, much as they currently book an Uber taxi. The drones will fly to the pickup up point, land and take off vertically, and fly to the drop-off point at speeds of over 60 mph and at heights ranging between 300 to 500 meters.
Only last year (June 2016) the Chinese company EHang tested the world’s first passenger drone in Nevada. It can fly up to 11,500 feet at 63 mph but is only capable of being airborne for 23 minutes, carrying a person with a weight up to 100 kg (220 lbs). It looks much like a small helicopter. Ehang’s drone, known as the Ehang 184, is very expensive however and will likely cost between $200,000 – $300,000 when it launches later in 2017.
Uber are presently working on their Uber Elevate model which may take about a decade to perfect. These would be Vertical Take-off and Landing aircraft (VTOLs). Other companies who might enter the race to manufacture passenger drones include DJI, Hubsan, 3D Robotics, and possibly Amazon.
Apart from the research and development work required to perfect the drones in the upcoming future, there are two other technological challenges. The first is to increase battery life to keep them in the air longer. One solution might be to charge them in mid-air. A wireless charging startup company called LaserMotive has already done work in this field. They ran an experiment with Lockheed Martin in 2012 to extend the flight time of the Stalker Unmanned Arial System and came up with a ‘laser power beaming’ solution. This involved the targeting of lasers at the solar panels on the vehicle, enabling it to remain airborne for up to 48 hours a time. Further work on this solution might involve designating drone highways where the drones can be regularly laser-charged without having to land, thereby dramatically increasing the number and duration of flights per day.
The second challenge is getting the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to implement the drone industry’s requests for extensive legislation. They have been slow to comply and the existing rules, which were updated by the FAA in August 2016, still insist that drones must be in visual range and be controlled at all times by a live operator. These restrictions are proving to be a deterrent for further innovation in the field within the U.S. at any rate though the developers have committed to implementing a remote-control backup function that could take over if the onboard AI fails to operate properly. Other countries like the Netherlands and New Zealand are much more accommodating in this respect. Delft, a city in the Netherlands, has agreed to develop docking stations and drone rentals in order to host the first fully autonomous drone network. Pizza companies Flirtey and Dominos are able to offer the world’s first commercial drone delivery service in New Zealand and did so for the first time on November 16 last year.
Challenges and restrictions in the U.S. notwithstanding, the future looks exciting for passenger drones. They will greatly be able to speed up public transport and prevent traffic snarls. They could also potentially save lives in medical emergencies as the response time needed to get a patient to hospital will be significantly reduced.