Companies such as Airbus and Uber believe passenger drones could open up the skies to commuters, but first they’ll need to overcome several regulatory and technical challenges.
You open an app, request a ride, and minutes later you're whisked into the sky by an autonomous air taxi. You soar above the traffic below and arrive at your destination in a fraction of the time the journey would have taken by road or rail. And your ride costs little more than an Uber does today.
This is the promise of urban air mobility, a new mode of transport that could transform the way we travel in cities. It sounds like science-fiction but numerous companies – from household names like Boeing to start-ups like EHang and Volocopter – are investing millions to make it reality. In fact, there are now around 120 Electric Vertical Take Off and Landing (eVTOL) prototypes in development around the globe.
As the name suggests, EVTOLs are battery-powered. They usually feature several rotors and don’t require a runway for take-off and landing, making them well-suited for urban environments. Also, they’re far less noisy than helicopters (but by no means completely silent – more on which later).
Projects currently underway include Airbus’s Vahana drone, which the company hopes to bring to market in the United States by 2020. Boeing, meanwhile, has acquired Aurora Flight Sciences, which is developing a flying taxi. And the German company Volocopter plans to conduct inner-city tests of its 18-rotor passenger drone in Singapore later this year, having captured the headlines with the drone’s test flight in Dubai in 2017.
The Chinese-developed Ehang 184, which can carry up to 100kg, or one individual passenger with baggage, also made its first public flight last year. The manufacturer claims it can reach speed of 160 km/h at sea level, and 100 km/h at higher altitudes. However, like most current EVTOLs its range is limited by its battery, which only lasts 23 minutes per charge.
Uber recently appointed a senior manager for battery pack development at Tesla to its “flying taxi” division Uber Elevate – a sign that developing longer-lasting lithium-ion batteries is a priority for the company, which is working with several EVTOL manufacturers to launch a five to six passenger aerial taxi service with a human pilot by 2020, and autonomous air taxis by 2030.
According to a study by Morgan Stanley Research, the market for autonomous flying cars could amount to nearly $1.5 trillion by the year 2040. And for cities suffering from chronic traffic congestion, aerial taxis for the masses have obvious appeal (Uber claim a trip between San Francisco and San Jose, which can take up to 2.5 hours in traffic, would be reduced to a 15-minute flight). But aside from better batteries, there are a number of other issues that still need to be addressed before flying taxis can hit the skies.
“Passenger drones will need landing pads (vertiports), together with passenger handling facilities located at transport hubs,” says Duncan Walker, Managing Director of Skyports, which is investing in London rooftop spaces in order to build a drone infrastructure network. Vertiports could be located on top of multi-storey car parks, office buildings and other existing infrastructure. But their placement is complicated by the fact that historic cities tend to have “small and very old and/or listed buildings in their centres”, says Walker. As a report by the International Transport Forum (ITF) notes, brand new vertiports would also have to “compete with other priorities for the allocation of scarce land resources.”
In the long run, the public’s attitude toward passenger drones is likely to play a bigger role in their success or failure than the technological challenges involved in getting them airbourne. Globally, nearly half the respondents to Deloitte’s survey of the psychological barriers to using passenger drones view them as a potentially viable solution to roadway congestion. However, 80 percent of the total respondents either believe that they “will not be safe” or are currently uncertain that they will be safe.
Just one fatal mid-air collision or incidence of a passenger drone falling to Earth and killing someone could set the industry back dramatically. Stringent safety regulations are therefore essential if passenger drones are to become a viable form of transport, such as reliable methods for bringing a flight to a safe conclusion in the event of a mechanical failure, and a Unified Air Traffic Management System to ensure that passenger drones don’t crash into each other or other airborne objects.
In fact, airspace management systems will need to ensure that drones of all types adhere to regulations, says Katja Schechtner, Advisor on Innovation and Technology at the International Transport Forum (ITF) and principal author of the ITF report. “Beyond safe transport, this includes the monitoring of routes, height, take off/landing places, no fly zones or times – e.g. to protect wildlife or the visual amenity of heritage sites. A difficult task when considering drone transport at large scale – whether it is passenger, freight, support or leisure drones.”
NASA and other organisations are developing “detect and avoid” systems to address some of these safety concerns, while the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States, European Aviation Safety Agency and Civil Aviation Administration of China are working on regulations that will govern how, when and where drones are used. But what about the noise they create?
As Schechtner says, “it is not only the level of noise they are emitting, but also the pitch that needs to be taken into account.” To address the issue properly, “regulators must consider the allocation of the airspace, the flight altitudes, and the vehicle noise itself,” says Robin Lineberger, Global Aerospace & Defense leader at Deloitte. “Finding the right combinations of these are key to this issue.”
As with helicopters, there are also fears that passenger drones will be a form of transport that only the rich can afford, soaring above congested roads while everyone else gazes up at them in envy. But while it’s true that a ride in an air taxi is unlikely to come cheap initially, “once scale is reached the price point will be remarkably affordable,” Walker claims, “and that will change the dynamics of how people move around cities.”
Smart cities and AI: apocalypse or opportunity?
Connected, electrified vehicles will take us further
To enable comments sign up for a Disqus account and enter your Disqus shortname in the Articulate node settings.