Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, The Jetsons. Flying vehicles are old hat in the world of make-believe. But now officials from Dubai's Federal Transport Authority plan to have a passenger-carrying drone buzzing in the skies of its city state by this July. The service will operate using the Chinese-made EHang 184 autonomous electric quadcopter drone, which was first unveiled in Las Vegas at International CES 2016.
The announcement somewhat diminishes the ambitions of Amazon and Alphabet, which are still working on their strategies to deliver packages to people's doors by drone.
The EHang 184 drone has room for one passenger and will be remotely monitored by a ground-based control room. The driverless vehicle has a battery that allows for a maximum 30 minutes of flight time and it can fly about 50 km on a single charge, with a top cruising speed of 160 kph.
After a passenger gets into the drone and buckles up, they select a destination on a map using a touch-screen device. Once selected, the drone will take off on a pre-set route to transport the passenger to the selected destination.
EHang isn't the only company pursuing a drone taxi, though the Dubai deal makes it seem the Guangzhou-based firm is the furthest along. Airbus, for example, plans to have a passenger drone in the air by the end of 2017, although commercial deployment isn't expected until at least 2020. Uber has published a conceptual white paper and hired a former NASA engineer to head up its own flying drone project. It already offers an UberChopper service in Dubai — albeit using a helicopter that comes with a pilot. And Google co-founder Larry Page is said to be experimenting with a super design of his own.
Dubai should certainly be credited with its vision. Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, says he aspires to have a quarter of all passenger journeys in the city to be by various driverless vehicles by 2030. For now, we believe that this immediate drone goal may be more of a curiosity-builder for Dubai. Nevertheless, special credit is due to the first commercial passenger in one of these drones, who will break new ground.