Recreational as well as commercial drones have become incredibly popular in the last few years. At first, drones were mainly popular among hobbyists, but they gradually became more than just a fancy gadget. A lot of people these days are serious and passionate about drones. Some people even earn income as professional drone pilots, and different industries and sectors like research and development, construction, and even the military use various types of drones nowadays.
There is no denying that it is exciting, entertaining, and amusing to fly a drone. But have you ever wondered what it would be like actually to ride a large drone? Some of you may have wondered if it was possible to build a drone that’s large enough to carry people. Well, not only is it possible, but some people are actually building such drones, and are often called passenger drones or drone taxis. Now you may think that it’s a plausible but far-fetched idea that will take years to become publicly available. But many big players are making massive progress with drone taxis, and you might get to see and even ride one sooner than you think!
So if the idea of passenger drones has intrigued you, then here’s everything you need to know about them – who’s making them, what’s the current level of progress with passenger drone technology, and how soon we can expect them to go public?
What is a Drone Taxi?
A drone taxi is exactly what its name says – a drone used as a taxi service. It’s like Uber, but a large drone replaces the car. Now you may say that a drone that can carry people is just a simplified version of a helicopter, and to some extent, that would make sense. However, they are called drone taxis for a reason – they follow similar flight technology as that of RC drones, and they are unmanned vehicles, meaning there’s no pilot on board. An operator controls it at a ground station, or it may fly autonomously.
But making a passenger drone is not as simple as taking a small drone and just scaling it to a bigger size. Yes, the underlying technology behind passenger drones is similar to the flight system of small remote-controlled drones, but it’s not entirely the same.
Obviously, a drone taxi will need more power and thrust, higher stability, and considering that it will be carrying people, security is the top priority. You can risk crashing your drone to a tree or pole, but there’s no room for errors in passenger drones.
Where Can I Ride A Passenger Drone Taxi?
Passenger drones are not publicly available yet, as of 2021, so you won’t be able to ride one at the moment. The good news is that several tech giants in the aerospace industry are getting closer to the point of launching drone taxi services in the near future.
In fact, the first passenger drone that could carry passengers was introduced by Ehang back in 2016, and it’s named Ehang 184. Since then, many other manufacturers and companies have come forward with their own design and concept of passenger drones. The idea of a drone taxi service is not just innovative and exciting, but it can also pave the way for the future of aerial transport and completely change the way people commute and travel.
Challenges Faced By Drone Taxi Manufacturers
The main reason why drone taxis haven’t been launched to the public yet is that there are still many obstacles to overcome, such as:
We don’t need to emphasize why safety is the number one factor to focus on in passenger drones. Advanced sensors, obstacle avoidance systems, and stabilizing mechanisms are challenges for the commercialization of drone taxis. On top of that, these are autonomous aerial vehicles, so the software also needs to be protected from hacking and cyber breaches.
From a manufacturer’s perspective, the cost has a big impact on the launch of drone taxis. It needs to be affordable enough for regular use by people, and at the same time, the company needs to make profits too. How they can manage to achieve that while also minimizing their expenses and making the drone taxi service affordable as well is another obstacle for manufacturers.
Managing Air Traffic
Perhaps the most difficult challenge for drone taxis is that they will require certain rules to regulate air traffic. Even when the passenger drone is fully capable of safely transporting people, it’s not possible to just put a bunch of unmanned, autonomous aerial vehicles in the air right away.
Not just the manufacturers but also the state and local authorities must formulate a proper air traffic system and establish regulations such as flying at lower altitudes, not running drone taxis near and around airports, and any other measures as would seem fit for the situation.
If we are to envision a future with drone taxis becoming widely available, then managing air traffic is one of the biggest challenges to overcome.
Who’s Making Drone Taxis?
Finally, we come to the question – who is making drone taxis and what’s the current status? So let’s check out the biggest aerospace leaders and tech companies currently working on drone taxis that are likely to launch sooner than others.
We’ve already mentioned how Ehang is one of the pioneers of autonomous aerial vehicles capable of carrying passengers. Ehang 184 was first displayed in the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Since it was the first passenger drone to be introduced publicly, it’s also most likely to be the first to launch commercially.
It has been put through over 1000 test flights, some of them at an altitude as high as 1000 feet. They had plans to launch a proper drone taxi service in Dubai in 2017, but due to many reasons, it wasn’t possible. Dubai has still shown the highest interest in launching drone taxi services with Ehang.
European aircraft manufacturer Airbus started their project on building passenger drones in 2016. Their single-seater drone – the Airbus Vahana – is designed to be safe, autonomous, and fast. The official Airbus website has listed some impressive specifications for Vahana, such as speeds of 190 – 220 km/hr, range up to 5 km, and eight motors to keep the vehicle in the air.
By 2019, Vahan had completed more than 130 test flights, covering a distance of 903 km in total. However, there is no confirmation or even speculation on their release date or upcoming plans, so we’ll just have to wait and see.
Boeing PAV was actually first developed by Aurora Flight Sciences, but it was later acquired by Boeing in 2017. Since then, it has been working on developing the PAV as a subsidiary of Boeing. As one of the biggest American corporations in the aerospace industry, it’s no surprise that it has taken the initiative to step into this emerging, potential market for passenger drones.
The PAV made headlines when it crashed in one of the test runs in 2019, but the company didn’t disclose full details about the incident. However, it was only the fifth test flight, so it wasn’t something to frown upon. They are still trailing behind both Ehang and Airbus in terms of progress and a full-scale drone taxi service launch. But given the resources and technology at Boeing’s disposal, it can be hoped that they will speed things up in the days to come.
German aircraft manufacturers Volocopter started working on their passenger drone Volocopter 2x, also called E-volo, way back in 2013, but it was only introduced publicly in a European airshow held in Germany in 2017.
It’s most notable feature is the use of 18 propellers to keep the drone in flight, which does offer greater safety as the drone can stay in flight even if one propeller malfunctions. E-volo looks much like a small helicopter but without the tail. Volocopter is currently working on serial production of the aircraft, which is why we think it will hit the market soon.
The thought of riding a drone sure seems quite enthralling, but it’s not just about the fun and excitement. Drone taxis can potentially change the future of transportation and lead to the shift towards aerial commute. If, appropriately implemented, drone taxi service will be a faster and more efficient way of transportation, and you get rid of the annoying traffic too.
Perhaps some of you might have already heard about drone taxis, while some of you may be hearing about it for the first time. But now you know all about passenger drones and the manufacturers working on making drone taxis a reality. So, it will be interesting to see how companies and manufacturers move ahead with the production of passenger drones and how authorities will integrate them into aerospace as a day-to-day means of transportation for the public.