We have all been there – stuck in traffic and wondering if there was a way to fly across the city instead. Now, the race is well and truly underway to launch viable passenger drones or sky taxis – the future of public transport. I analyse some players, hurdles and solutions.

Players in the passenger drones – sky taxi race

Given the recent success of electric cars and the ever-improving recharging speeds and capacity, most of these companies are exploring electric propulsion.

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Image Credit: Volocopter

Dubai (Of-course!) seems to be leading the pack. In June, Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) of Dubai signed an agreement with German Volocopter to start an autonomous air taxi service by the end of 2017. Interest and investment of ~ $30 Million by Daimler AG (Mercedes-Benz parent company), Lukasz Gadowski (tech investor) and a few others has only accelerated Dubai’s ambition towards the air-taxis.

The Volocopter is designed to accommodate up to two passengers. The promotional video:

 

Dubai’s RTA has also partnered with China’s Ehang, developing the Ehang184 single passenger autonomous drone.

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Image Credit: EHANG

Not to be left behind, Uber’s Project Elevate – “a future of on-demand urban air transportation” expects to be active in the skies by 2023. uberPOOL anyone? 😉

The French aircraft maker is aiming at 2020 to launch (begins testing end of 2017) its version of the passenger sky taxi – Vahana and CityAirbus, the two undertakings. CityAirbus is exploring a four-six passenger capacity.

 

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CityAirBus Image Credit: Airbus

 

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Vahana Image Credit: Airbus

 

Passenger drones – Hurdles:

While the opportunities and offerings are exciting, at its infancy the passenger drone world comes with obvious hurdles.

  • Regulation and Public confidence: The most obvious yet most complex hurdle to overcome for any new technology. Case in point, Uber, AirBnB, drones etc. A single mishap can have dramatic repercussions on both.
  • How long can it fly on battery power? US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations dictate that aircraft have spare 20 minutes of ‘fuel’, which means the passenger drones mentioned above will need to account for in flight duration capabilities.
  • Managing Airspace: While air corridors already exist, permission to enter these corridors are currently done manually. Automating this procedure can be an immense barrier, both technologically and regulatory.
  • Cost and Affordability: The success of this becoming a primary mode will rest solely on the affordability by the masses.
  • …and many more that are beyond my comprehension

 

Passenger drones – Possible Solutions:

I am glad (and hope) folks brighter than me are in-charge and are diligently working towards solutions to overcome the hurdles and build a robust product. Some of the solutions and discussions I have read include;

  • Leveraging the ever improving recharging speeds and capacity of the electric car batteries into passenger drone technology.
  • A detachable battery base that can be swapped between flights.
  • Introduce passenger drones with human pilots as phase one, to collect data and convince air safety regulators
  • A parachute which would trigger if the drone detects a higher than normal descend rate
  • Emergency landing anytime battery levels reach critical point.
  • A communications system that allows passenger drones to detect and avoid collisions, determine flight corridors etc.
  • …and many more that are beyond my comprehension

Take Away

This post is my way of understanding the passenger drone space as it stands. Its an exciting time ‘to be around’ and witness fantasy becoming reality. If the last few decades are any indicators, passenger drone technology is evolving and advancing every day. If you are as excited as I am, better keep Dubai in your travel plans in the coming months.