Are taxi drones possible? Dubai certainly seems to think so. The wealthy United Arab Emirates city recently staged a test flight for what it hopes to be the first accessible taxi drone in the world.
The drone’s maiden flight was arranged by Dubai’s Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed recently. Dubai hopes that its new taxi drones will become a cross between a driverless vehicle and a short haul VTOL aircraft for urban areas.
During the test flight this Monday, the drone – an experimental e-volo VC200 Volocopter – managed to hover 200 meters in the air, and flew for around five minutes near the Gulf coast. The drone’s brief but exciting performance was greeted with applause by Sheikh Hamdan and his entourage, who viewed the entire event on a stage close by.
The technology behind the VC200 taxi drone was developed by the German firm, Volocopter, and its design resembles a small helicopter cabin topped by a large hoop that featured 18 propellers. The drone was also designed to fly without remote control guidance, and it can fly for around 30 minutes.
For safety purposes, the taxi drone also features numerous fail safes, including back up batteries, extra rotors and even parachutes for worst case scenarios. Whenever a passenger wants to ride in the VC200, all he or she needs to do is download the right app, use their smartphone to summon the nearest drone and a VC200 will come over to pick them up.
The VC200 Volocopter may be Dubai’s bid to become the first city to have its own taxi drones, but it’s not the only one with this ambition. Passenger drone technology has been around for years, and the first passenger drone, the Ehang 184, was introduced at the Computer Electronics Show 2016 by Chinese entrepreneurs last year.
Furthermore, several European and U.S. firms are already racing to produce the new passenger drones for the market. Airbus, for example, wants to produce their own self-piloting taxi drone by 2020. Other contenders in the drone taxi market include Kitty Hawk, Uber, DJI, 3D Robotics, Hubsan and even Amazon. Smaller firms are also partnering with one another to produce components and apps for these taxi drones.
Despite the excitement, however, it’s worth remembering that the technology for passenger drones is still in its infancy. There are issues related to charging, durability and safety, all of which are still in the process of development.
The VC200, for example, can only fly for a limited amount of time, and its performance in harsh weather conditions has yet to be tested. So even though Dubai’s new taxi drone offers a lot of promise, it still has a long way to go before it becomes a feasible urban vehicle.
For now though, the VC200 seems to have a good head start in the taxi drone market. Although the VC200 is still in its experimental stage, it is already capable of flying based on GPS data, and developers are hoping to integrate full sense capabilities to allow the VC200 to deal with whatever obstacles it may encounter while it’s traveling in the air. Volocopter developers are also hoping to put their product into the mass market within the next five years.