No way! Heavy traffic jam in front of your door and you need to go to a meeting. You’re never going to be on time. No worries, with one click on your drone service-app, a little drone picks you up and takes you in ten minutes to your destination, without any headaches and with an amazing view of the city.
Is this reality or just a futuristic scene from a sci-fi movie? In a time where the selfie drone is a hit and you can have your pizza delivered by a drone, the development of a passenger drone is not far from reality anymore.
Passenger drone development is in full swing and the first drones have already reached the sky. The Ehang 184 can fly with a passenger for 23 straight minutes on one charge. The Chinese firm EHang presented the drone at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and is now testing in the Nevada skies. This makes Nevada one of the first US states to permit autonomous drones in its airspace.
The business is booming. Uber revealed ambitious plans for Uber Elevate Stations, taxi stations all over town that fly with multi-passenger drones. Amazon started testing its Prime Air vehicles in the US, UK, Austria and Israel. The drones can carry small packages up to five pounds and bring them to the clients. In addition, drone developer Flirtey is cooperating with Dominos Pizza by delivering pizzas in New Zealand. And the European firm Atomico invested 10 million euros in plane developer Lilium Aviation to build a passenger drone. These entrepreneurs all discovered that the use of drones highly accelerates package delivery and facilitates access to remote areas. Besides delivery and taxi services, its use can also facilitate the military, engineering, and emergency services.
All current passenger and delivery drones are developed as autonomous flyers, which is the most efficient choice for future development. It is simply not efficient to let everyone get a Private Pilot license to fly a passenger drone, which requires at least 40 hours of flying experience. Most of the people would not even be able to qualify for the license.
On top of that, autonomous vehicles are more reliable drivers than a human being. Autonomous systems in cars and drones use GPS to track their location, while using sensors, learning algorithm software, and cameras to recognize signs and other traffic. Based on this information, the car or drone itself decides on a safe speed, acceleration, braking and turning while the passenger can just sit back and relax. Compared to an autonomous car, flying in a drone is even safer, because there is more space to evade obstacles in the sky.
To produce the Ehang 184, developers combined the best of autonomous driving technologies and drone development into a vehicle that can now autonomously fly itself with one passenger inside. The company ensures a “comfortable cabin environment and a smooth and steady flight even in windy condition”. The drone might look unsteady, but its light structure is made from the same material NASA uses for space craft.
During the flight, the drone connects to a command centre that provides essential information to the drone system. In bad weather conditions, for instance, the command centre will prohibit the drone from take-off and in an emergency, it will show the drone the nearest landing spots.
It needs a lot of research on automated systems before passenger drones can become a part of our daily life. Companies like Tesla, Google and Uber are now within three to five years of launching fully automated (driverless) cars on the commercial market, but they encountered some major throwbacks.
The first difficulty is charging the autonomous system. The Ehang 184, which is the most sophisticated passenger drone developed until now, can only fly for 23 minutes (after it charged for 2-4 hours). A solution could be to develop an infrastructure for mid-air charging, through mid-air charge stations or by laser power beams. The wireless charging start-up LaserMotive is testing this method, and performed an experiment with Lokheed Martin in 2012 by shooting lasers at photovoltaic cells mounted on a flying vehicle. They kept the vehicle operated for a record time of 48 hours. If drone developers are able to implement this technology in passenger drones, drones do not have to land anymore to get charged.
Other hurdles on the road to passenger drone use are the existing regulations concerning drones. In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates that drones must be within line of sight, and must always be controlled by a live operator. However, in some countries the flight rules have been adapted to the new developments. In the Netherlands, the first fully autonomous drone network was built in the city Delft, complete with docking stations and a rental system.
Human imagination has always been fueled by flying cars and vehicles. If developments will go on as fast as they do now, it will not take long before passenger drones take transportation to the next level and let us commute through the clouds.