Are Dubai’s Drone Taxis For Real?

Passenger drone service is poised to begin, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

Your briefcase goes in back, and there’s no need to tip. (Dubai Roads and Transport Authority)
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If you believe the advertisements, passenger drones may be making their debut this summer in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

In a recently released video, Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority 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, which can launch and land vertically and travel up to 50 kilometers (31 miles), according to the RTA, flies completely autonomously. The passenger simply locks the vehicle’s door, inputs a destination using the onboard interface, then fastens a multi-point restraint.

While the Dubai passenger drone would prove a first—assuming it works, and holds to that ambitious schedule—others will be close on its heels. Rideshare company Uber, for one, has said it would like a fleet of its own. Israel’s Urban Aeronautics has been testing its Cormorant for urban taxi and ambulance services. Even if the Dubai drone doesn’t take off this summer, the world is sure to see this concept become real eventually, considering the technical advancements made possible by research sponsored by DARPA and others.

Passenger drones face big challenges, however: taking off and landing vertically in a crowded city, navigating congested skies autonomously, keeping down noise so as not to irritate the neighbors, low speed, and a host of safety issues for both passengers and people on the ground. The Dubai RTA is putting its faith in the Chinese-built Ehang 184 “AAV” or Autonomous Aerial Vehicle. Equipped with electric motors and computers with GPS and other types of navigation, the Ehang 184 lifts off, flies, and lands relatively quietly. It can stay aloft for up to 30 minutes at a time. According to Ehang’s data sheet for the 184, it launches and lands at pre-designated locations marked with a logo, and has cameras that help it navigate safely and with precision.

The 184 is technically an X-8 multi-rotor, meaning that it has four points of thrust, each consisting of two motor-propellers, coaxially aligned—one “tractor” propeller and one “pusher.” This means that if any one of the motors dies, or a propeller disintegrates, the aircraft won’t flip and crash to the ground, although it would need to land rather quickly. The concept has never been tried in an operational passenger service, however, and some feel that without further safety enhancements the drone taxi idea is a disaster waiting to happen.

Another issue, particularly for Dubai in the summer, is that rotor systems don’t work very efficiently in hot air, which can dramatically reduce an aircraft’s payload capacity and flight time from its specifications on paper. 

If the Ehang works out flawlessly, it will begin operation this July; that would be a world first, a major leap in applied technology, and a giant feather in the cap of a nation trying hard to compete with giants on the world stage. That outcome, however, seems unlikely: Though Ehang makes a small smartphone-controlled hobbyist drone, the Ghost, regulations for vehicles carrying passengers are much more stringent. Videos of the Ehang 84 show unpiloted test flights, but offer no evidence that it has yet carried people. (In response to queries, the company wrote in an email that “Many details about Ehang 184 haven’t been released yet.”) We look forward to hearing more about it, but count us as skeptics for now.

About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Mission of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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