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Passenger drones: Take-off in Dubai, grounded elsewhere

Parizad Mangi

If you’re in Dubai this summer, you might get a chance to hail a driverless flying taxi - but don’t get your hopes up about catching an airborne cab in the UK or US any time soon.

Earlier this week, Dubai's Roads and Transport Agency announced that drones would be transporting passengers by July, with the aim of reducing traffic congestion.

The craft doing the work, EHang 184, is made in China, and has recently been approved by the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, following test flights last year in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show. It had more tests later at home, flying over Dubai’s iconic Burj Al Arab skyscraper.

Able to carry a single passenger, the taxi also has a small compartment for luggage. It’s electrically-powered, takes two hours to charge, and can fly some 50 km for about 30 min. Its top speed is 161km/h - but in real life, it will be capped at 100km/h. There won’t be a pilot there with you, but don’t worry – the cab will be controlled from a remote command centre, using 4G network.

EHang 184 looks like a quadcopter, with propellers that can fold inwards – so that when it lands, it’s able to fit into a single parking spot. It also has a "fail safe" system, which would make it land in the nearest place if something goes amok, and sports air conditioning and in-flight WiFi. All communication is encrypted, to keep hackers at bay, and to hail one, you’d simply have to enter your destination into an app.

Even if Dubai indeed introduces flying taxis to its skies in just a few months, they are unlikely to appear in the UK  in the near future - not under current regulations. Also, it would require years of testing to get anywhere near a public rollout.

Any flying car would first have to go through a full certification process by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), an arm of the EU, says Richard Taylor of the Civil Aviation Authority. “They would be responsible for making sure it met all the same sort of requirements that manned aircrafts have to comply with,” he adds. “That process can take quite a long time. Compensations usually happen with the manufacturer and the regulator while production is ongoing to make sure that certification is indeed possible as an outcome."  

Once approved, the flying taxi would have to be integrated into national airspace, and that wouldn't happen overnight either, says Taylor. It will be necessary to make sure that other airspace users are aware of the drones, he says, and that “there are no obstacles with air traffic controllers or any communication issues, which is far from an easy job.”

He’s also sceptical about autonomous flying cars taking off in Dubai as early as July.

While passenger-ferrying drones are unlikely to appear very soon in the US either, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seems to be a bit more open-minded about the technology.

“We have discussed certification projects with several manufacturers of aircraft that will be flown with a pilot in the beginning, then will be converted to an autonomous passenger aircraft in the future,” says Les Dorr of the FAA. “We also have been working with NASA’s On Demand Mobility project addressing advanced air transportation concepts, which include similar vehicles.”

Several areas still need more research and development, especially to ensure that the technology is safe to fly, Dorr adds, as well as the interaction with the air traffic control system.

It’s not the only effort to develop pilotless passenger-ferrying flying vehicles. Airbus has recently announced its plans to test similar technology by the end of 2017. Last year, Uber released a white paper with plans to develop flying cars, and recently hired a former NASA aircraft engineer to work on the concept. "On-demand aviation has the potential to radically improve urban mobility, giving people back time lost in their daily commutes," Jeff Holden and Nikhil Goel of Uber wrote in the white paper. 

Another company looking into the idea is Zee.Aero, funded by Google co-founder Larry Page. And a German start-up Lilium Jet says it has already developed a working prototype for a flying car. 
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