Early this week, Dubai staged a maiden test flight for one of its potential taxis—a two-seater, 18-rotor unmanned flying vehicle. The automated vehicle, which lifts and lands vertically like a helicopter, whisked Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed away for a five-minute flight 200 m above a patch of sand. The vehicle, made by German firm Volocopter, is backed by fellow German company Daimler. It was a short exhibition, but Dubai and Volocopter ultimately want to offer longer rides that last up to 30 minutes. Dubai seems to be racing ahead, with ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum saying, “By 2030, 25% of the mass transportation in the city has to be autonomous.” Perhaps the city is moving too quickly, but it’s not just Dubai which is keen on having a flying taxi. In fact, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates faces stiff competition from other players who are going gaga over air cabs.
In February, ride-sharing giant Uber got Nasa chief technologist Mark Moore to work on Project Elevate, which is on-demand urban air transportation. Airbus, the French aircraft-maker, is also working on a prototype air taxi, Vahana, saying it will begin testing by the end of this year and have one ready by 2020. Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority has also teamed up with China’s Ehang and is testing the drone-maker’s single-passenger Ehang 184 autonomous aerial vehicle.
Operators are looking at opportunities in the air because traffic is becoming increasingly clogged on the ground. In Brazil’s Sao Paulo, traffic jams average 180 km on Fridays and sometimes stretch to a barely credible 295 km. And the world’s megalopolises are continuing to grow. No wonder air taxis are capturing people’s imaginations.
Volocopter envisions a future wherein a rider will be able to hail a flying taxi simply by booking one through an app. The rider can wait for it at a nearby ‘voloport’. There are still lots of concerns about air taxis. The primary is safety. What happens if it takes a dive mid-flight? Well, it won’t happen because the fail-safe mechanism probably won’t allow it to take off if there’s a flat battery. However, what may happen are collisions due to poor management of the airspace. And since they’ll be offering something new, they want passengers to feel safe by equipping each flying taxi with back-up batteries and rotors, as well as a couple of parachutes.
Another major hiccup is setting up a proper regulatory framework that will keep a tab on such flights. To do that, it’ll need to earn the trust of people and get their approval. Knowing that you are taking a plane without a pilot may not go down too well with people suffering from a phobia of flying. The fact is that it’s secure even though there is no human pilot onboard will take some time to sink in.
Ehang carries a single passenger, Volocopter has space for two, while City Airbus is looking at four-six passengers. Each of these companies is pursuing electric propulsion as its main focus area, seeing it as greener and quieter. The preferred horizontal rotor technology allows for vertical take-off and landing, which makes sense in densely built-up urban spaces. And composite materials, such as carbon fibre, help keep the weight to a minimum.
Exactly how such flying taxis would be regulated, how many of them would operate and what would keep them from running into other airborne objects isn’t clear. Ehang drone currently flies for 23 minutes. But the US Federal Aviation Administration stipulates that such aircraft require a spare 20 minutes of fuel. So this would limit the drone to a commercially-unviable three-minute flight. But a lot of people are betting those problems will eventually get solved. It may take a long time for autonomous drone tech to win regulatory—not to mention public—trust. And that’s ignoring the potential complaints about the noise all these buzzing copters would make in our cities.
Uber believes air taxis will have autonomous capability built in from 2023, but will have human pilots for the first 5-10 years, while enough data is collected to convince regulators that sky taxis are safe. Volocopter maintains that the current model is capable of flying based on GPS tracks, but the company plans to implement full-sense capability in the future. It will ensure that the machine can avoid obstacles and avoid colliding with other flying taxis on the way. If all goes well, you could catch a Volocopter ride in Dubai within the next five years.