Passenger Drone Year in Review: How Far We’ve Come, and How Far We Still Have to Go
BY Zacc Dukowitz20 December 2017
As we approach the end of 2017 we wanted to take a look at one of the more futuristic ideas in the drone industry to have made headway this year: the passenger drone.
Self driving cars seem to be edging their way toward real viability, and we no longer think they sound crazy when people bring them up. And if the news cycle is any indicator, it seems like drone taxis are also starting to gain some real traction, both in terms of viability and in terms of capturing our imagination as a thing that could actually happen.
We’ve seen several stories about passenger drones in the news over the last several months, all of which indicate that progress is being made. That being said, the coverage has the same feel to it that news about drone deliveries once did—lots of hype, without a whole lot of action.
What follows is a look at the companies that are working to make passenger drones a reality, some thoughts on how likely it is that they’ll actually pull it off, and information on the places where these futuristic crafts might actually be flown.
The Biggest Passenger Drone Companies
Toward the end of last month Ehang was in the news again for its E-184 drone. The current model can only carry one passenger in its small cockpit, but the company now says it’s working on a model that will carry two people. Ehang’s Chief Executive Officer Hu Huazhi says that, pending official approval from regulators there, they plan to be flying in Dubai in 2018.
Will it happen?
It’s hard to believe Ehang’s timeline at this point, since they originally claimed they were going to roll out drone taxies in Dubai by July of 2017. Given their track record, we don’t have a lot of confidence that we’ll actually be seeing Ehang’s drone taxis flying over Dubai—or elsewhere—any time soon.
Uber was also in the news last month for their passenger drone program, called Uber Elevate, which they’re now developing in partnership with NASA.
Uber’s proposed design would have passenger drones that take off and land vertically (called VTOLs), making them optimal for flight in dense urban areas.
Will it happen?
Uber hosted a three day “flying car” event back in April focused on vertical take-off and landing aircraft (this is where the acronym VTOL comes from), and they’ve been working with officials in Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Dubai to push their taxi drone project forward. They’ve also reportedly been working with real estate firms in these cities to identify possible locations for take-off and landing pads (called “vertiports” by Uber).
Unlike Ehang, which claims they’ll be flying by next year, Uber provides a more conservative timeline and says that they plan to be operational by 2020. Given all the logistical thought they’re giving the effort, and their modest timeline, it does seem possible that Uber may actually pull this off.
AirBus was in the news a few months back for its announcement that it would have its electric drone taxi in the air next year. According to CityAirbus chief engineer Marius Bebesel, they’ve conducted successful ground tests of the electric power system used to propel the vehicle through the air, and they’ll be ready to fly in 2018.
However, being able to fly and being ready for daily operations are two completely different things. Although AirBus may soon have a taxi drone in the air, we don’t expect to be riding in one any time soon.
Will it happen?
As you can see in the infographic below, AirBus has laid out a fairly detailed timeline for getting their passenger drone program up and running. From what we know, AirBus has hit the milestones on their timeline up to this point. If they continue delivering at this pace it seems like they could actually be operational by, or even before, 2023.
Places Where We Might See Passenger Drones in the Air First
Of course, even if these companies develop the technology needed to make drone taxies a reality, the question still remains: Where will they be able to fly them?
Below is a list of places that have expressed interest in hosting passenger drones, largely because they see them as a possible solution to their congested roadways.
Let’s take a look.
Partnering with the city of L.A. to help it make a bid for the 2020 Olympics, Uber has claimed that their vertical taxi drones could be operational in time to transport all of the people the international games would bring in. Notorious throughout the world for its traffic delays, this solution would certainly help L.A. in their bid—if the Olympics committee believes it to be viable, of course.
According to Uber’s own analysis, a 200-mph all electric ride across Los Angeles would be “price competitive” to an UberX ride of the same distance.
Here’s an example of a sample UberAir route in Los Angeles:
Back in June of 2016 Nevada’s GOED (Governor’s Office of Economic Development) announced a partnership with the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems and Ehang to “help guide Ehang through the FAA regulatory process with the ultimate goal of achieving safe flight,” so that Ehang could begin testing passenger drones in the state.
But after that announcement things have been relatively quiet on the taxi drone front in Nevada. We wonder if the lack of news has to do with Ehang falling short on deadlines in production—the delays we’ve seen in rolling things out in Dubai would certainly back up this theory.
If Ehang can’t come through, Uber and AirBus may jump in to fill in the gap—if they’re interested. Given that the attraction of Nevada for airspace research is its wide open spaces, big companies looking to drive fast adoption may simply not be interested in operating there when they could potentially make more money in dense cities like L.A., Dallas, or Dubai.
Uber has reportedly been working with real estate firm Hilwood Properties in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to identify sites where it can build takeoff and landing pads for its passenger drones.
Uber has also been talking to city officials for months about the possible rollout, as well as with representatives from the DFW International Airport, the Fort Worth Alliance Airport, and Dallas Love Field.
Dallas has a fantastic history with aviation. It’s a very aviation-friendly and forward-thinking city.
– Mark Moore, Uber Engineering Director of Vehicle Systems
United Arab Emirates
Ever since announcing its plans back in February to launch passenger drones by July of 2017, Dubai has been the poster child for the passenger drone movement.
Dubai is already a futuristic city, with its man-made palm-shaped islands and the tallest building in the world—taxi drones seem like a natural fit, and would also be a feather in their collective cap when it comes to maintaining their position as one of the most innovative cities in the world.
The original partner for Dubai’s taxi drone program was Ehang, but now Uber is also mentioning possible flights in Dubai. It seems like taxi drones will definitely come to Dubai, but it’s still an open question about who will bring them there.
Wherever passenger drones are rolled out, and whichever company ends up getting their first, the path forward is sure to be a winding one.
What we do know is that some very serious efforts are being made to push taxi drones forward, and the emphasis in the industry seems to be shifting from if to when.
So now the question is—can you see yourself actually riding in one of these things? 🙂