It certainly looks like we're moving towards that possibility if we take a look at what some companies are working on. In this article, we've made a compilation of the major taxi drone projects currently in development.
Chinese drone manufacturer EHANG has just completed its first taxi drone flight. The EHANG 184, an electric quadcopter passenger drone, has been in development for a couple of years. On February 5, the company has realized the first successful sky-taxi flight after thousands of test flights with human passengers.
The EHANG 184 in flight
Image source: EHANG
During those test flights a variety of weather conditions were involved, including high temperatures, nighttime flights, low visibility scenarios (e.g. fog) and even winds mimicking a category 7 typhoon. Though many might be a bit skeptic to the idea of drones as a means of transportation, the company’s project has serious potential. And the company is ambitious and determined to make this a reality.
“What we’re doing isn’t an extreme sport, so the safety of each passenger always comes first. Now that we’ve successfully tested the EHANG 184, I’m really excited to see what the future holds for us in terms of air mobility”, said founder and CEO of EHANG, Huazhi Hu.
The electric quadcopter can transport a passenger for a distance of up to 16,000 meters (10 miles) or up to a duration of around 23 minutes. All you have to do is climb in the drone, enter your desired destination and sit back and enjoy the ride as the drone flies itself to your destination. EHANG is looking to improve passenger experience even further, by adding the option to manually control the vehicle for passengers with piloting experience.
EHANG 184's specifications
Image source: dronelife.com
To make the experience this streamlined it was necessary to implement obstacle avoidance sensors, an autonomous guiding system and vertical takeoff and landing ability. In the case something went wrong, a remote pilot could then take over control of the vehicle and safely land it as soon as possible.
Reportedly, the company has already designed and tested a model capable of carrying two passengers with a weight capacity of 280 kg or 617 pounds. EHANG Is planning to present its single passenger drone at the World Government Summit in Dubai later this week, while officials in Dubai are also looking at the German company Volocopter’s similar air taxi service. Additionally, EHANG has also received permission to use a Federal Aviation Administration-approved test site by the state of Nevada.
See the drone in action below:
It’s an exciting and futuristic thought to think of the possibility to fly through major metropolitan cities in a drone. Nonetheless, EHANG is set on taking it seriously and has the ambition to make this a reality in the future with their evolution from conceptualization to tests flights and later presentations being proof of their confidence and ambitious mindset.
Intel’s CEO, Brian Krzanich, was highly impressed recently by a test flight with German startup Volocopter’s taxi drone, the ‘Volocopter 2X’, during Intel’s keynote at CES in Las Vegas in January.
“THAT was fantastic, the best flight I have ever had. Everybody will fly one of these someday”, said an enthusiastic Krzanich. The vehicle is one of the first passenger drones, although there are a few other companies looking to realize air taxi transportation, such as Ehang, Airbus and Uber.
The drone can fly on its own, or it can be operated by a pilot with the joystick and it runs on electricity. Volocopter is capable of delivering a smooth, turbulence free flight.
The Volocopter in flight
Image source: facebook.com
“Volocopter leverages Intel technology … (and) the smooth flight is enabled by dozens of microprocessors monitoring the environment for turbulence, winds, etc. and sending signals in milliseconds to the rotors.
“These can react and perform the slightest adjustments instantly (using) their battery-powered electric motors.”
The Volocopter, which has 18 rotors and more than 100 microprocessors, is built to stay in the air if faced with multiple failures. The Volocopter uses 4 intertial movement units, or IMUs, which constantly measure and determine the vehicle’s altitude and positioning.
The battery is split up into nine packs, with each pack powering a pair of rotors, allowing the vehicle to remain in flight in case a battery pack fails. In case of emergency, there’s a ballistic parachute in the top of the Volocopter that will deploy, so that the vehicle can safely return to the ground.
“In a traditional helicopter, if one single component along the entire drivetrain fails, you are in deep trouble,” Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter, who is in partnership with Intel, told The Verge.
“We’ve pretty much traded in the entire mechanical complexity of today’s helicopters for electronic complexity, which is far more lightweight, far more powerful, and far cheaper today. And we think this vehicle can be constructed in a way that is as safe as a commercial airliner, which is where it needs to be in order to be applied at scale in megacities across the world”, he added.
The Volocopter 2X has a flight time of 30 minutes, can be charged in 40 minutes and has a maximum range of 27 kilometers (17 miles). The batteries can be quickly swapped though as compensation, at least until the technology improves. In the summer of 2017, Volocopter secured a €25 million (30 million USD) investment from German automotive manufacturer Daimler.
A few months thereafter, Volocopter announced a multiyear partnership with Dubai’s transit authority to test its air taxis. Dubai is planning to have 30% of commuters travel by air transportation by 2030, in an attempt to relieve traffic congestion.
Watch Volocopter's presentation at CES:
Airbus has recently completed their first successful test flight with their autonomous, electric air taxi. The development of the air taxi was first announced back in January 2017. Airbus calls the air taxi drone the ‘Vahana’. It reached a height of 5 meters (16 feet) for a duration of 53 seconds during the test flight on January 31 in Pendleton, Oregon at 8:52 am.
Airbus' Vahana drone
Image source: lesfurets.com
"Today we are celebrating a great accomplishment in aerospace innovation. In just under two years, Vahana took a concept sketch on a napkin and built a full-scale, self-piloted aircraft that has successfully completed its first flight", said Zach Lovering, project executive of Vahana.
The drone is designed to minimize traffic on inner-city roads. Airbus sees Vahana as the solution to the growing concerns surrounding traffic congestion and mobility issues in many cities around the world. The full-scale drone measures in at 2.8 meters tall (9.2 feet), 5.7 meters high (18.7 feet) and 6.2 meters wide (20.3 feet). It has a flight range of about 80 kilometers (50 miles).
Human error is hoped to be minimized by sense-and-avoid technology to ensure higher safety levels.
"Our goal is to democratize personal flight by leveraging the latest technologies such as electric propulsion, energy storage, and machine vision. Our first flights mark a huge milestone for Vahana as well as the global pursuit of urban air mobility.
We envision Vahana being used by everyday commuters as a cost-comparable replacement for short-range urban transportation like cars or trains. No more traffic accidents or train delays to impact your plans", said Airbus.
Vahana is not only intended as an air taxi though. Airbus feels that the vehicle could be as diverse as any regular vehicle on the ground. The drone could be utilized for the delivery of cargo, as an ambulance, for search/rescue missions, for agriculture purposes, surveillance, etc.
Airbus also envisions people booking the personal aircraft through an app, similar to how Uber works and aims to design their own taxi service.
Read more here.
Uber and Bell Helicopter
Aircraft manufacturer Bell Helicopter revealed their self-piloting air taxi at the Consumer Electronics Show last month in Las Vegas. The design was made with Uber’s upcoming aircraft taxi service in mind, which should be available by 2020 if everything goes to plan. Uber previously announced their partnership with NASA to launch a flying taxi service in Los Angeles by 2020.
The autonomous vehicle can accommodate up to four passengers, offers vertical takeoff and landing and on-demand availability. It’s a bit of a cross between a traditional helicopter and a passenger-carrying drone. It’s fitted with all the necessary technology, such as Wi-Fi, artificial intelligence, video calling and the ability to charge wirelessly.
According to Bell, the ‘BellAirTaxi’ will shorten traveling times, while the time in the air can be spent productively or leisurely as one wishes to enjoy the journey even more. The air taxi allows the traveler to stay connected to every aspect of their life, and thus saving valuable time. Only the cabin was revealed at CES however, but Bell Helicopter has said they plan on revealing the propulsion system at a later date.
“We’re just keeping our particular propulsion system in configuration to ourselves right now, to keep our competition on their heels,” said Scott Drennen, Bell’s director of innovation to The Verge. So as of now, no details are known about how exactly the vehicle will work. But it appears there will be a gas turbine to power an electric generator. And there are plans to switch to battery power in the future, when the advancement of battery technology allows fuel tanks to be removed completely.
In essence, helicopters pretty much do the same thing. But the people utilizing helicopters for short-distance air travel are all quite wealthy. Bell wants air taxis to be the new alternative accessible to everyone else. “If you think about the folks that we want to ride on these vehicles: my grandma and her grandkids, my two daughters — three people that essentially would never have a chance to get around in a helicopter,” Drennan said.