Passenger drones promise to give us personal air transport without the need for a pilot. It almost feels like the flying cars we’ve all wished for at one time or another, especially when we’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper morning traffic!
The “car” in the flying car
The first point of order is to define what a flying car is. A common idea here is that it’s a road car that can also fly. It’s great when you have a dummy anti-gravity system or some other way to lift a car without wings or rotors. Unfortunately, in real life, these types of flying cars are extremely impractical. They don’t work well as cars or planes.
When you think of flying cars in fiction, they don’t really spend much time on the road. They are “cars” in the sense that you can use them as a personal transportation vehicle. They fill the same niche (and parking space) as a car on the ground, but they can skip the limited two-dimensional space of the road surface and get you right where you’re going.
It is in this sense that we speak of stealing “cars”. We mean a personal aircraft that can do the same job as a traditional car, but using flight.
Enter the passenger drone (watch your head!)
Passenger drones are essentially full-scale versions of the camera and racing drones that now litter our skies. The fundamental technology is the same, but the drone is large and powerful enough to carry passengers and cargo.
You get in your drone or order one like an Uber, then tell it where you need to go. The drone then takes you autonomously to your destination. So it’s kinda like Uber helicopter service. However, there is no pilot and you don’t need to get to a helipad first.
Passenger drone prototypes are real
It’s more than just a pie-in-the-sky daydream. Passenger drones already exist and are being tested in various locations around the world.
the Exchange 184 is probably the most famous example. Ehang claims to have successfully carried passengers in their drones as early as 2015 and the 184 was revealed to the world in 2016 at CES. The 184 is an autonomous drone that can cruise up to 81 mph, with a range of 9.9 miles, and can carry two passengers.
There is also kittyhawk, backed by Google co-founder Larry Page and led by Sebastian Thrun of Google and Udacity. Kittyhawk is working on a single-passenger air taxi. Their H2 plane is said to have a range of one hundred miles and a top speed of 180 mph. At the same time, Kittyhawk is working to produce aircraft at “…automotive scale and automotive cost…”
Do we need passenger drones?
There is no doubt that if personal aircraft like passenger drones were affordable to own or operate, there would be many people for whom it is a much better solution than a traditional car. Of course, we have invested huge resources in the roads and continue to pour more money into them to develop and maintain them. Ultimately, there is a limit to the number of routes that can be expanded to provide more capacity. At some point, the only space you have left is above your head.
The thing is, it’s not that simple, because the world is changing in ways that affect our transportation needs. With the rise of technology and the work-from-home culture, we may see a drop in travel congestion. Self-driving land cars could also increase the efficiency and safety of car travel once every car is self-driving.
Passenger drones may only have niche appeal when it comes to private ownership, but they have potential as an air taxi service for customers who might have used private helicopters or those who would have liked but could not afford it.
Law enforcement, air ambulance services, and other high-priority services can also be primary customers for passenger drones.
What about passenger safety?
While passenger drones solve the problem of needing a pilot, the other major problem with “flying cars” is safety and maintenance. When it comes to the safe operation of the craft using autonomous systems, the problem is not as difficult as it seems. Flying through the airspace autonomously is actually an easier problem to solve than having a self-driving car to navigate complex road environments. These drones would fit into existing air traffic control infrastructure and have on-board intelligence and sensors to prevent collisions.
A much bigger issue is maintenance. If you improperly maintain a car on the ground, you’re usually left with the annoyance of a roadside breakdown, but if you don’t properly maintain an aircraft, there are potentially deadly consequences.
Banning the possession of car-like private passenger drones might be necessary for safety reasons only, limiting them to commercial fleets where maintenance can be provided. Of course, there is no such thing as 100% safe transport, but all of the flight testing and development going on right now is aimed at that goal.
The car won’t be leaving any time soon
While passenger drones are feasible and likely have a future as part of our transportation mix, they are unlikely to replace ground cars. While a passenger drone may well fill the same niche as a traditional car, maintenance-related safety issues and mass air traffic control issues could make it difficult to justify mass adoption.
We think there’s a good chance we’ll have drone-based air taxi services sooner rather than later, but sci-fi flying cars remain (safely) confined to fiction. Again, they have already opened a airport for flying electric carsso maybe the dream is still alive.