AT TIMES it can feel like we are living in an episode of “Travel Futurama”. This week: flying drone taxis.
Dubai, a city that sometimes seems to inhabit a time zone five years ahead of the rest of the planet, has embraced another improbable travel innovation, to go alongside its enthusiasm for hyperloop trains and long driverless metro lines. This week, the Emirati metropolis announced it is to test passenger-carrying drones in its skies by July.
The unpiloted drone taxis won’t exactly replace the traditional earthbound sort, since they will be able to carry only one passenger, who together with luggage cannot weigh more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds). And it will have a range of just 50 kilometres (31 miles), or half an hour of flying time. But if it works, the long-term implications are huge not only for Dubai, which has among the world’s deadliest roads, but also for congested cities around the world. While others sit bumper-to-bumper, a passenger in these new drones will be able to cruise above the gridlock at an average speed of 100 kilometres an hour (62 miles an hour).
That might seem like a desert mirage, but the concept has already sprung up elsewhere, if only as an aspiration. In June, the American state of Nevada cleared the world’s first passenger-carrying drone for testing. The craft is the same one being introduced in Dubai, the Chinese-made Ehang 184, a compact pod with four dual-propeller extensions that navigates by using sensors. At that time, many were quick to pronounce that the widespread adoption of such vehicles was still a long way off. Success in Dubai could accelerate things dramatically.
Ditching the pilot goes a step beyond the blue-sky thinking taking place at another transport innovator, Uber. In October, the ride-hailing firm released a 97-page white paper outlining plans for flying cars that could turn a two-hour drive into a 15-minute flight. Those vehicles would be manned by pilots, but Uber projects that they would eventually be far cheaper for a 60-mile trip than the company’s standard UberX cars are now.
Pilotless drones might cut costs further by eliminating the need to pay for labour (it would also save on weight), although people on the ground would monitor the vehicles. It is not hard to envisige a future in which business travellers use piloted flying cars like Uber’s for intercity journeys, and trips between cities are taken in drones. Add to the mix some other innovations—like the aforementioned hyperloop, that could whizz people between Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 12 minutes, and the driverless on-the-ground taxis that will inevitably become a reality and a multimodal transportation future akin to Futurama doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Eventually.
Source: the economist