DUBAI’S PLAN FOR THE ULTIMATE TAXI SERVICE

Private passenger Drone taxis

BY AMIR AL-ABASSY

One of the most amazing transportation plans in the world is the advent of private passenger drones poised to take to the skies of Dubai, United Arab Emirates this summer of 2017.  Dubai recently set a goal to become the smartest city in the world and has plans to automate at least 25% of its public transport by 2030. The Middle Eastern city suffers from chronic traffic congestion due to rapid redevelopment. And one of Dubai’s plans is its attempt to replace regular cabs with drone taxis, potentially by the summer of 2017.

In a recently released video, Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) showed off an “autonomous aerial vehicle”—an urban multi-rotor taxi drone that can carry a single passenger weighing up to 100 kilograms (220 pounds) and a “small suitcase.” The aircraft, can autonomously launch and land vertically, and travel up to 50 kilometers according to the RTA.

The passenger just locks the vehicle’s door, inputs a destination using the onboard tablet interface, and then fastens a multi-point restraint and flies off.

The Dubai RTA is planning on using a Chinese-made Ehang 184 “AAV” (Autonomous Aerial Vehicle.)  The small egg-shaped vehicle is equipped with four electric motor fan blades and looks like an upscaled drone with its single passenger compartment.  Ehang is known for manufacturing small smartphone-controlled drones for the hobbyist. The Ehang 184 uses its horizontal rotors operated by a computer and navigations systems that work with GPS and cameras.  According to the video on the Dubai RTA website, the passenger only opens the small door, enters the rather comfortable cabin, and keys in the destination he/she wants to go. The Ehang 184 then flies anywhere within its 30-minute airtime and a 50-mile range, taking off and landing at pre-designated locations. It all sound pretty incredible and assuming the plan goes ahead; It would be the world first.

Passenger drones face significant challenges, however: there are issues such as safety, navigating the congested skies and airspace of Dubai with its soaring towers, trying to take off and landing vertically in a crowded city, and problems such as noise and nuisance. The biggest issue would, of course, be safety, both above and on the ground for passengers and the general public. Ehang and other drone makers are working on technology that allows drones to drift down to the ground, rather than flip or crash like aircraft in the event of a mishap.

There are, and of course will be extremely stringent tests, legislation, and certification to ensure maximum safety if the scheme ever gets off the ground. For now, Ehang admits they have not tested a drone with a real passenger as yet, but feel the technology is feasible. Skeptics point out that the idea of personal taxi drones whizzing about is just too unsafe given our crowded cities, and the risk of crashes to passengers and those on the ground is too high.  Ehang claims their drone will be programmed with a fail-safe system, and in the case of emergency, the drone would prepare to land in the closest safe area. Whether or not the ambitious program of taxi air drones takes off in 2017, believers say it is inevitable. All eyes are on Dubai for now.  Rideshare company, Uber, has expressed it would like a fleet of its own. Israel’s Urban Aeronautics has been testing a drone for urban taxi and ambulance services.  Perhaps the most amazing things would be the realization, not of the much-hyped personal flying car, but the personal drone that may change the way we travel forever.