The process is simple: the user picks up his or her mobile phone, enters a specific app, requests a transfer by air taxi, and indicates a pick-up point and a destination point. Users will observe how the drone-taxi approaches the agreed place, and after identifying themselves with the code provided, they will jump on board and, in a matter of minutes, with no traffic jams or traffic lights, they will arrive at their destination.
Several companies are already testing autonomous air vehicles for passenger transport. Are we ready to take the leap?
This could be a common reality sooner than we think. Different companies around the world are already working on this, such as the German firm E-Volo, which has already designed and manufactured a model (Volocopter) that is to be used (where else?) in the city of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. It can hold two people and looks like a helicopter cockpit, with a hoop at the top into which 18 rotors are inserted. It has a maximum flight time of 30 minutes and has already been successfully tested on several unmanned flights. If everything goes according to plan, the company behind this project hopes that within 5 years a fleet of at least 18 of these drone-taxis will already be operating in the city of Dubai.
One of its main competitors is the Ehang 184, developed by the Chinese company Beijing Yi-Hang Creation Science & Technology. The size of the cabin in this model is similar to that of the Volocopter, but it can only accommodate one passenger weighing up to 100 kg. It has 8 rotors, which are located underneath the cabin. It is mainly made out of carbon fibre and aluminium alloy. It has a similar maximum flight time as that of the Volocopter model, and has recently been tested with people on board.
Both models are 100% electric and have been created in order to meet one of the objectives of the city of Dubai’s strategic plan for 2030: that 25% of urban transport be autonomous (driverless) and environmentally friendly.
But these are not the only companies developing this mobility system. The aerospace giant Airbus has also joined this race to conquer public air transport, with its versatile Popup model. Kitty Hawk (a company that one of the founders of Google is involved in), Uber, and up to 16 other companies are working on their own prototypes, most of which are considering outlooks of 2 to 5 years for their release.
Indeed, drone-taxis are closer than we think, and there are many who believe in their future success as a means of transport. However, it is important to bear in mind several important factors that will determine their viability in the future. These include:
- The regulation of airspace to accommodate them in urban and interurban environments.
- Cost of use, which will determine whether or not they are a luxury that is within the reach of only a few.
- The ability of cities to adapt to having sufficient accessible take-off and landing areas.
- And last but not least, fear. The qualms that may be felt about climbing into one of these drones to autonomously fly more than 100 metres above the ground could be an important factor.
I don’t know if I would dare to do it; however, like so many other things, it may just be a matter of getting used to it.