In the last post I looked at very short term forecast, what is likely to happen to drones this year, 2020. Let’s now shift the horizon further down in time. Several “experts” are betting that flying cars will become part of the landscape in the next decade, 2030 onwards. A first step in that direction will be commercial taxi service based on drones.
Technology supporting completely autonomous flying in urban environment is available but there are any regulatory hurdles to overcome.
Safety, both for passengers and for people that will happen to be right under the drone flying pattern, is crucial. In effect the trials with taxi-drones that are being performed in a few cities, like Dubai and Singapore, are using drones equipped with multiple rotors. 8 and even 18 rotors independently operated for safety reasons (high redundancy) – the usual drones used by consumers to take aerial photos have 4 rotors, commercial delivery drones have 6 rotors. Clearly, the more rotors you have and the more redundancy…
It is not strange that those cities that have started trials are the one having a specific geography that decrease the risk: Dubai is laid out on a strip of land between the sea and the desert. A drone can take off from the edges of the strip, fly over sea or desert and land on the edges thus keeping risk at minimum. Similarly Singapore, being an island, can exploit the sea shores for flight. Trials are taking place between Sentosa and Marina (see the photo).
Dubai announced back in 2017 the intention to start commercial service in 2020 (now) and started trials with the same Volocopter being trialled now in Singapore, but legal and insurance issues are delaying the launch.
There are now a few companies that are developing (and demonstrating) autonomous flying taxies and a few are looking at flying cars targeting the private consumer market, like Kitty Hawk, a company backed by Google.
So far the focus has been on technology (providing safe autonomous flight) but we are seeing that maturity is not that far away since there is more and more talking about the economics of flying cars.
Although it may seem difficult to believe from an energy standpoint flying is better than driving. The energy required to transport one person for one mile in a plane requires 2,465 BTU (British Thermal Units), by car 4,211 (80% more).
Actually, the situation is much more fuzzy. The energy cost is calculated on one side taking into account a full aircraft, on the other a car with just the driver. In addition the expensive part of flying is the take off and climb. Once you are at cruise level the power used is the one to counteract the force of gravity. The drag experienced by a plane is much lower than the drag experienced by a car (high altitude…). In case of drones in a urban environment the climb is very limited (a few hundred meters) and the additional energy cost is more than covered by the fact that there are no traffic jams and the flight use a much shorter path than the road driven by the car.
Another advantage of flying vs driving is that you use the 3rd dimension, that multiplies the available space and therefore increases capacity. This is actually considered as the major drive in congested cities like LA.
Clearly, managing congestion in the 3rd dimension is trickier than in 2 dimensions. A lot of work is going on to manage drone traffic, creating self routing swarms, rather than using a central control, as it is the case for airplanes today. Once you are facing thousands of drones in a urban environment centralised control is not the way to go.
Last year Verizon has announced its goal of becoming the first company to provide full support to manage up to a million drones by leveraging on its (growing) 5G network. That is good but it is not enough. The autonomous capability of drones shall increase significantly and the cooperation among drones to create swarm intelligence is needed. This is something that will keep researchers busy for most part of this decade.