Talk about rising above the masses. Dubai staged the first public test of its drone taxi service on Monday, offering a peek at what it might—or will—be like to commute by flying car.
The self-piloting, electric Volocopter is less noisy and has a smaller physical and environmental footprint than a traditional helicopter. Offering space for two passengers, the 6.5-foot-high copter is topped by a 22-foot-wide hoop studded with 18 rotors. In a video of the test, the all-white drone rose, unoccupied, about 650 feet over the sand near Jumeirah Beach Park, flew itself for about five minutes, and then gently landed.
The flight was the latest step toward a major transportation shift for Dubai, which by 2030 aims to have 25 percent of local passenger trips take place in driverless vehicles. Dubai isn’t the most congested city—according to the Traffic Index released by navigation company TomTom NV in February, Dubai ranks No. 85 in the world for bad traffic—but its rulers are determined to create a hub for transportation innovation.
“Encouraging innovation and adopting the latest technologies contribute not only to the country’s development but also build bridges into the future,” said Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, crown prince of Dubai, in a statement.
Dubai had been working with Chinese drone maker EHang Inc., having announced in March that air-taxi pickups would start over the summer; that didn’t come to pass. The emirate’s Road and Transport Authority didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.
The German-made Volocopter prototype takes two hours to fully charge and can fly for about 30 minutes at a cruising speed of roughly 30 miles per hour. It maxes out at roughly 60 mph. For safety’s sake, the drone has redundant battery systems, propellers, motors, and flight controls—and, for the worst-case scenario, emergency parachutes. The manufacturer says the first licensed Volocopter should be on the market in 2018, but has yet to reveal a price.
A lot has to happen before drone taxis become commonplace, even in Dubai. The RTA says it will put a number of regulatory structures in place for what it’s dubbing the Autonomous Air Taxi (AAT); awaited are safety standards, routes, take-off and landing points, and more. if all goes well, users will eventually be able to use an app to request pickups at nearby voloports that connect to Dubai’s other public transport systems, such as metro, tram, and marine transport.
The Volocopter is far from the only passenger drone—or VTOL aircraft, for “vertical landing and takeoff”—in development for general use.
The A3 think tank from EADS Co.’s Airbus is working on the self-piloting single-seater Vahana, which is expected to have a flight range of around 50 miles. Airbus is marketing this not just as a potential air taxi, but also as a delivery drone or emergency vehicle. The company plans to start test flights of a full-scale prototype in Oregon this year.
Uber is partnering with other companies to create its version of the flying car, which it plans to start testing in 2020. And Larry Page, co-founder of Google Inc. and chief executive officer of its parent company, Alphabet Inc., has invested more than $100 million in Kitty Hawk Corp., whose electric Flyer looks like Spiderman’s airborne motorcycle, with a ring of nets surrounding its seat and pontoons for landing.
Capable of flying at a height of 15 feet over water, the Flyer isn’t self-driving but is classified as an ultralight aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration, so a full pilot’s license isn’t required—as long as you fly it in “uncongested areas.” It’s supposed to be available by the end of the year.