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Roads move to the sky

Our cities are likely to see swarms of drones buzzing around, delivering goods and … people. This opens up a whole new set of issues. Image credit: NASA

Small drones have become so ubiquitous that legislators all around the world are scrambling to regulate their (invasive) presence. Apart, obviously, from airspace near airports their presence is also forbidden in several places. Some Countries are requiring a registration and rules on their flights. It is not just the small drones used by amateurs (as entertaining toys), there is a growing number of drones used in business (from wedding photography to infrastructure inspection – wind turbines, radio towers…). In the US, as of November 23rd, there are over 868,012 registered drones, 339,998 of them registered as commercial drones (the rest as recreational). Worldwide 5 million drones were shipped in 2020 and the number is foreseen to reach 9.6 million in 2030 (this is the number of drones sold in that year).

These are “small” drones (military drone numbers are much more difficult to estimate…) used as recreational activity, photography and small package delivery.

In the coming years we will be seeing drones to transport people (like the one presented in the clip). Most of them, at least in this decade, will be operating like taxis (in the sky) but in the next decade it is foreseen that a growing number of flying cars will take to the sky. I remember back in the sixties, as we were going to the Moon, many foresaw flying cars by the end of the century but it turned out it was wrong.

Today, however, technology for having flying vehicles has become available at reasonable cost (a flying vehicle might be priced like a luxury car by the end of this decade, with expected price to decrease down to the level of a medium size car at the end of the next decade. As of 2021 the most affordable! flying car would be the Pal-V, reserve yours today for an expected delivery in 2022 at a starting price of 299,000 € ). That means millions of flying vehicles in the next decade, making for a crowded sky.

According to a recent McKinsey report, flying cars should become a reality (for the top mass market) in 2024. More than that: according to the report flying taxies will become the norm in many cities around the world by the end of this decade changing our perception of transportation.

In order to become a mass market transportation, as today’s car, we will have to wait one more decade, in particular we will have to wait for:

  • price reaching the 40-50k $/€ level
  • autonomous drive (today you would need to get an expensive license -30,000US$- to operate a flying vehicle
  • a new set of regulation defining what road in the sky means. Current rules and flight traffic control (ATC) simply cannot scale and cannot be applied to flying vehicles. More than that. Flying vehicles in a urban environment could become so “dense” that no traffic control would be able to orchestrate them. The flying cars will need to self-coordinate the flying routes.

Additionally, this new “traffic” will need to be coordinated with the Air Traffic of commercial aircrafts (that includes helicopter and small planes operating under VFR -Visual Flight Rules). NASA is studying this aspect for 5 years now and has released the results in May 2021. It is a first step, much more work will be needed to implement the recommendations and update current systems. There is still time, 10 years at least, but time goes by pretty quickly.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.

One comment

  1. Hello Roberto,

    thanks for the interesting article! Still a lot to do. First, Governments have to adapt create their traffic regulations to include drones (similar applies for autonomous vehicles). Rising drone traffic, may require a central management, as driving in 3 dimensions is more complicated than in only 2. Different regions, based on culture and technical development, may come to different solutions.