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Are passenger drones likely to take off?

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The concept of transporting people from place to place in flying passenger drones is exciting, potentially revolutionary and simultaneously far-fetched and potentially problem-prone.

While we know there exist models of UAVs that are up to the job, are they a development that’s set to take off or something that, like flying cars, will never gain much traction in society?

Before we get too deep into this topic – here’s a cool example of a passenger drone. The Astro Aerospace is, according to their press release, a state-of-the-art aerial transport vehicle that is slated to improve urban mobility and enable passengers to arrive at their destination “swiftly and safely”.

It has 16 individual rotors and is emission-free.

The flying car dream started long ago – is this just a rehash?

In the early 20th century personal cars were gradually becoming a popular form of transport. In 1903 the Wright Brothers achieved the first powered flight. Within a decade, dreams of a building a flying car began to crystallize for those in the auto industry. The appeal of flying cars is easy to understand: why be confined to expensive roads that take long to build when the skies are open and free?

The enticing possibilities for passenger drones

If passenger drones do become successful, one can envision many positive benefits to society. Imagine how much more ambitious architecture could become if you could fly to the entrance of your home rather than entering from ground level? At first thought, this idea may seem a little too fantastical but it is not hard to picture a densely inhabited modern city such as New York, Tokyo or Shanghai adopting flight ports for passenger drones. It would not be too dissimilar to many helicopter pads installed on high-rise buildings around the world (albeit, predominantly for the incredibly rich).

This new technology could facilitate a massive reimagining of space, how we design buildings and where people could choose to live. If someone could easily fly to areas that were previously inaccessible, the possible options for where someone might live would conceivably increase exponentially (this could be a great or terrible thing, depending on your perspective).

Traffic and the resultant pollution currently causes the world countless problems. Passenger drones could, if they were deployed in such numbers to transport large numbers of people – greatly alleviate city congestion. Most of the passenger drones currently on offer are electric, or at very least run more efficiently than many of the current engines we have today. With a proper rollout, passenger drones could help to reduce the enormous amount of carbon being pumped into our atmosphere. A big caveat for all of this, however, is that most of the current passenger drones are intended for one or a maximum of two people. In their current form, it is hard to envision them being that much of a game-changer but let’s see what new iterations come to pass before passing further judgment. To learn more about the awesome possibility of drones, check out the fantastic documentary on YouTube, Elevation.

Reality hits you hard bro

There have been many different iterations of flying car over the past century and while they have had varying degrees of success, none has ever achieved widespread popularity and rollout. Older models of flying car were essentially streamlined cars with pairs of wings strapped to them. The problem with this style of car is that they need significant room to take flight. They are therefore limited in their manoeuvrability through a city and require a runway to takeoff and land. Part of the difficulty in making a flying car is that aeroplanes and cars are designed for very different purposes. When you try to build a craft that performs in both domains well – you end up with something that is subpar in both domains.

Curtis Autoplane from 1917.

The Lilium: to call it a flying car is a bit of a stretch; aeroplane seems more apt.

Later models of flying cars are far more sophisticated than the early versions and to call them a ‘car’ is a bit of a misnomer. Could you technically still drive them on a road? I guess. But when you can fly, why would you want to drive? While flying cars were never hugely successful, perhaps passenger drones are the closest we’ll ever come to realizing a century-old dream.

What’s new with passenger drones?

Passenger drones are a relatively new development. Recent improvements in AI, battery and electric engine technology have made small aircrafts cheaper to produce. Back in February we wrote about a test flight of the EHang 184 passenger drone in China.

The Ehang 184

There’s no doubt that this craft is an impressive piece of technology. As you can see from the below video, the Ehang has completed manned test flights. It flew at a height of nearly 1000 feet (300 meters) at speeds of up to 80 mph (130 kmh).

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