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 stuck in bumper-to-bumper morning traffic!
The “Car” in Flying Car
The first point of order is defining what a flying car is in the first place. A common idea here is that it’s a road car that can also fly. That’s fine and dandy when you have a fictional anti-gravity system or some other way to lift a car without wings or rotors. Unfortunately, in real life, these sorts of flying cars have been extremely impractical. They don’t work well as either cars or aircraft.
When you think about the flying cars from fiction, they don’t really spend much time on the road at all. They are “cars” in the sense that you can use them as a personal transport vehicle. They fill the same niche (and the same parking space) as a ground car, but they can skip the limited two-dimensional space of the road surface and take you directly where you’re going.
It’s in this sense that we’re talking about flying “cars.” We mean a personal aircraft that can do the same job a traditional car can—but using flight.
Enter the Passenger Drone (Watch Your Head!)
Passenger drones are essentially scaled-up 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’d get into your drone or order one like an Uber and then tell it where you need to go. The drone then autonomously flies you to your destination. So it’s a bit like Uber’s Helicopter service. However, there’s no pilot, and you don’t have to drive to a heliport first.
Passenger Drone Prototypes Are Real
This is more than just pie-in-the-sky daydreaming. Passenger drones already exist and are in testing in various locations over the world.
The Ehang 184 is likely the most famous example. Ehang claims to have successfully carried passengers in their drones as far back as 2015 and the 184 was revealed to the world in 2016 at CES. The 184 is an autonomous drone that can reach a cruising speed of 81 mph, with a range of 9.9 miles, and can carry two passengers.
There’s also Kittyhawk, backed by Google co-founder Larry Page and run by Sebastian Thrun of Google and Udacity fame. Kittyhawk is working on a single-passenger air taxi. Their H2 aircraft is claimed to have a hundred-mile range and a top speed of 180 mph. At the same time, Kittyhawk is working on producing aircraft at “…automotive scale and automotive cost…”
Do We Need Passenger Drones?
There’s little doubt that if personal aircraft like passenger drones were affordable to own or use, there would be many people for whom it’s a much better solution than a traditional car. Of course, we have invested enormous resources into roads and continue to pump more money into them to expand and maintain them. In the end, there’s a limit to how many roads can be expanded to offer more capacity. At some point, the only space you have left is above your head.
The thing is, it’s not as simple as that, because the world is changing in ways that affect our transport needs. With the rise of work-from-home technology and culture, we may see a drop in commute congestion. Self-driving ground cars could also increase the efficiency and safety of car travel once every car is autonomous.
Passenger drones may only have niche appeal when it comes to private ownership, but they do have potential as an air taxi service for customers who might have used private helicopters or those who would have liked to but couldn’t afford it.
Law enforcement, air ambulance services, and other high-priority services may also be prime customers for passenger drones.
What About Passenger Safety?
While passenger drones solve the issue of needing a pilot, the other major issue with “flying cars” is safety and maintenance. When it comes to the safe operation of the craft using autonomous systems, the problem isn’t as tough as it might seem. Flying through airspace autonomously is actually an easier problem to solve than getting a self-driving car to navigate complex road environments. These drones would fit into existing air traffic control infrastructure and have onboard intelligence and sensors to prevent collisions.
A much bigger problem is maintenance. If you maintain a ground car poorly, you generally end up with the annoyance of a roadside breakdown, but if you don’t maintain an aircraft properly there are potentially fatal consequences.
Prohibiting car-like private passenger drone ownership might be necessary for safety reasons alone, limiting them to commercial fleets where maintenance can be ensured. Of course, there’s no such thing as 100% safe transport, but all of the flight testing and development that’s going on right now is working towards that goal.
The Car Isn’t Going Away Any Time Soon
While passenger drones are feasible and probably do have a future as part of our transport mix, they probably aren’t going to replace ground cars. Even if a passenger drone can neatly fill the same niche as a traditional car, maintenance safety concerns and mass air-control challenges could make it hard to justify mass adoption.
We think there’s a good chance we’ll have drone-based air-taxi services sooner rather than later, but the flying cars of science fiction remain (safely) confined to fiction. Then again, they’ve already opened an airport for electric flying cars, so perhaps the dream is still alive.