Passenger Drones: Standing on the Brink of a New Era in Passenger Transportation

March 2020
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What are Passenger Drones?

Passenger drones are midsized autonomous aerial vehicles that can carry an individual or small party of two or three people. Passenger drones can be compared to helicopters, except that they are smaller than the latter, and usually run on electricity. The rotor system of passenger drones is also different than helicopters, insomuch as it usually works through multiple rotor units attached on all sides of the drone, rather than relying on one central rotor unit as in helicopters.

The development of passenger drones has picked up pace in the last few years following the successful adoption of drones in delivery and other commercial operations. The world’s first passenger drone is the Ehang 184, which was first flown in 2017, followed by several efforts by leading players including Airbus, Boeing, and Bell Helicopter.

Why are they in the spotlight?

Passenger drones represent a viable way of transporting individuals across cities, acting as air taxis or air ambulances. The growing traffic congestion in major cities around the world has led to solid backing for the development of passenger drones in the last few years. Cities such as Los Angeles and Dubai have come forward on their own to support the development of viable passenger drone solutions that can help solve their congestion problems, and more are likely to join the queue in the coming years. With the growing urbanization in developing countries, cities such as Mumbai, Shanghai, Delhi, Manila, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Sao Paulo, Lagos, Guangzhou, and Bengaluru could emerge as key customers of passenger drones.

So, all that sounds good, right?

Well, yes, and no. The technological base for the development of passenger drones is sound, and they're definitely is a demand for passenger drones in the world’s largest cities. However, the engineering and mechanical aspects of the passenger drones’ market are the least of its concerns, as air traffic control regulations have emerged as a major drawback.

Since passenger drones will operate within city limits, there is the very little preexisting regulatory framework for the use of these devices. Working out this problem and carrying it through till the point of dotting the I’s and crossing the t’s is likely to be a major headache for players in the passenger drone market. Some players in the passenger drone market have taken proactive steps towards countering this problem by developing its own dedicated air traffic management systems.

Here are the major projects currently being developed in the market:

  • Ehang 184

The Ehang 184 is a one-person drone that works fully on electricity and comes built-in with redundancy systems to protect the vehicle and its occupant.

  • Volocopter

Volocopter has demonstrated its VC200 unit in Dubai as well as in North America, emerging as a major player in the passenger drone market in the process. The VC200 is built in collaboration with Intel, which further raises the creds of this endeavor, given Intel’s expertise in designing diverse types of computing units and microprocessors.

  • Uber Elevate

Uber’s plans for monopolizing the private transportation sector are not limited to roads, but also extend to the skies. Uber Elevate, built in partnership with NASA, comprises VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) vehicles that are planned to be operational in 2020. Officials in Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Dubai have already shown interest in working with Uber to produce sustainable infrastructure for the Uber Elevate drones, including building/locating suitable landing points.

  • CityAirbus

In November 2017, Airbus announced the CityAirbus, a passenger drone designed to carry four passengers, including a driver where regulations necessitate one. This is one of the most promising projects in the passenger drone market pipeline, as its progress has so far hit every targeted milestone. Airbus plans to make the CityAirbus operational by 2023.

  • Bell Helicopter

Not to be put off by the mass entry of aircraft manufacturers into the passenger drone field, Bell Helicopter became the first helicopter company to announce plans for passenger drones, doing so at CES 2018. Bell’s plans comprise a four-person electric helicopter designed to operate both with or without a driver.

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