Can Drones Carry Humans?
Yes, they can! Drones that can do this are called passenger drones or drone taxis.
The very first drone taxi was unveiled in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show 2016 by the Chinese drone manufacturers, Ehang, and was called the Ehang 184.
However, this was just a prototype.
Two years later in 2018, Ehang demonstrated that we were closer than ever before to a world with a sky lined with autonomous drone taxis.
They released video footage of passengers boarding their autonomous drone and taking off with the push of a button.
What made this footage special was not the fact that it could carry passengers from point A to point B. A lot of other companies in Europe and America, including some big name players had been able to achieve that.
What made the Ehang footage special was that it showed how far ahead of the competition the Chinese drone maker was in the push for creating a new form of transportation.
The video shows the human carrying drone coping with all sorts of possible challenges. There were test flights showing the Ehang 184 flying at a height 1000 feet above the ground, flying in storm-force winds, flying in low visibility, and also flying at night.
According to the drone manufacturer, they possess the only passenger drone capable of reaching speeds that exceed 80 miles per hour.
What Companies Are Working on Passenger Drones?
Large, global cities like Los Angeles and Dubai are straining under the weight of traffic congestion problems, and are ready to welcome passenger drones as a viable solution.
A few companies around the world who have identified this opportunity are racing to effectively satisfy this need and rake in cash in the process.
Here are the companies willing to scale the engineering, mechanical, safety, and regulatory hurdles standing in the way of passenger drones:
Ehang is a major drone manufacturer in China that currently lies in the lead as far as passenger drones are concerned.
Their passenger drone, Ehang 184, is a one-person passenger drone that has been stressed tested and shown to be capable of carrying up to 500 pounds of cargo. It can reach speeds that exceed 80 miles per hour and can fly for up to 23 minutes.
One of the major keys to this autonomous aerial vehicle is its highly sophisticated flight system. The Ehang 184’s flight computer system is able to pull data from onboard sensors and also use satellite navigation to chart the safest path.
If the system is damaged, the drone taxi is designed to make a controlled descent to safe ground.
The Ehang 184 which runs on 100% green technology being powered by electricity only, could start providing flights to the public in Dubai as soon as 2020.
Volocopter is working on its own human carrying drone in partnership with Intel.
The Daimler-backed aviation company announced itself as a serious player and made waves at the Consumer Electronics Show 2018 by finishing of their keynote address with the Volocopter VC200 flying across the stage.
The Volocopter VC200 is a two-seater 18 rotor drone taxi that can be operated by a pilot or fly autonomously. It runs on green technology and is powered solely by electricity.
The exhibition at the Consumer Electronic Show 2018 marked its first flight in North America although it has had several test flights in Dubai.
Presently, the Volocopter VC200 can fly for up to 30 minutes and cover a distance of 17 miles. The company already has a permit to fly in Germany and expects to be part of Dubai’s commercial pilot program as soon as the early parts of 2020.
Airbus publicly announced that it would have its electric passenger drone zipping across the skies in 2018. However, the first successful take-off was announced on 3rd May, 2019. Although there was no formal announcement, their CEO made the news public over Twitter with a photo of the engineering teams in front of the passenger drone.
The CityAirbus is designed to be a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicle that uses a four rotor (quadcopter) design.
Airbus have not ruled out the possibility of using a pilot to fly their vehicle but they are perfecting the architecture and safety systems with the autonomous version first.
This all-electric autonomous device runs on four 800-volt batteries that power the four sets of paired, counter-rotating rotors inside aerodynamic ducts fused to the fuselage. The rotors span about 9 feet in diameter and are surrounded by aerodynamic ducts
The CityAirbus is designed to be the quintessential urban vehicle.
The Lilium Jet is another passenger drone company in Germany, hoping to usher in the era of the autonomous taxis. Their all-electric aircraft is able to take off vertically like a helicopter, and had its maiden flight in Munich in April 2017.
Although the Lilium Jet takes off like a helicopter, it propels forward like a jet, hence the claim that it is “the world’s first electric vertical take-off and landing jet”.
Furthermore, this human carrying drone has a range of 300 km and can travel up to 300 km/h.
Despite all this power, the Lilium Jet makes less noise than a motorcycle.
Boeing successfully carried out the first test operation of its own autonomous air taxi prototype on January 22, 2019, at Manassas, Virginia.
The company was able to build its prototype through its NeXt division which utilized a Boeing subsidiary company, Aurora Flight Sciences, to develop the electric-powered VTOL aircraft.
The prototype had to takeoff, hover for a few seconds, and land to complete its first test flight. And during the exercise, the ground control apparatus and autonomous features were tried out.
Future planned flights will test the wing-borne flight, and forward flight as well as the phase of transition between forward-oriented and vertical flight modes. This transitioning promises to be the most challenging engineering hurdle of all for any VTOL aircraft.
All these accomplishments by Boeing came within one year of compiling the conceptual ideas to a working prototype. Their expertise in aviation, as well as acquiring Aurora Flight Science, no doubt played a part in the rapid development.
Boeing’s human carrying drone is run on an electric propulsion setup, and is designed for completely autonomous operations from take-off to landing. It’s targeted flight range is 50 miles.
It is 30 feet in length and 28ft wide, and its sophisticated airframe will leverage propulsion and wing systems to achieve efficient hovering and forward-going flight.
Boeing is already working with regulators and other industry stakeholders to create its vision of a new mobility setup that hinges on piloted and autonomous drone taxis.
Bell is known more for producing drones aimed at package delivery. But at the Consumer Electronics Show 2018, they showcased a virtual reality simulator of their concept for an air taxi.
They, thus, became the first helicopter company to exhibit at the show.
The four passenger concept is slated to come with a lot of commuter creature comforts when ready such as video calling, WiFi, AI, and wireless charging.
It can also be flown by a pilot, but the company is working towards it being fully autonomous.
In collaboration with NASA, and a host of other companies like Aurora Flight Sciences, Uber Elevate’s passenger drones are being designed to be vertical take-off and landing vehicles.
The plan is to have them fully operational in 2020 and the company is currently liaising with officials and real estate firms in congested cities like Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and Dubai to arrange possible locations for take-offs and landings.
The first mockups of the concept drones have already been released and it is clear that Uber passengers in the air will be just as comfy as those in the Uber Black rides. And rides are projected to cost about as much.
Accommodation per ride will be for 4, not including the pilot. Interiors will include space for luggage and will be fully customizable by the operator to best serve customer needs.
In addition to all this, Uber Elevate’s human carrying drones will be able to travel at 150 miles per hour and will burn no fossil fuels.
How Does A Passenger Drone Work?
Passenger drones are simply life-sized versions of the remote-controlled drones that dominate the skies today.
For example, the Ehang 184 uses the same quadcopter design of your commercial drone, added with a cabin that seats one person and a Microsoft Surface tablet that acts as its console.
The craft itself is made up of composite material designed to take the heavy payloads, usually carbon fiber and aerospace-grade aluminum alloy.
The present passenger drones models and concepts are battery operated, running on lithium-ion batteries that make up much of the vehicle’s weight.
The lift force is provided by the propellers and each design comes with its own minimum requirement to lift the machine into the air. For example, the CityAirbus needs to achieve over 950 revolutions per minute to take off.
Safety is worked into every part of human carrying drones and this overrides even the autonomous systems. For example, should the flight system of the Ehang 184 malfunction, the drone would land gently at the safest possible spot.
The passenger could also temporarily take over controls in case of an emergency in order to land the drone.
And finally, to prevent signal hijacking the Ehang 184’s communications system is encrypted, with each unit having its own independent key.
Think of human carrying drones as your commercial drones on steroids.
The Future of Passenger Drones
It is an exciting time for passenger drones as newer, better concepts are developed. But the future is still shrouded in uncertainty.
There are the technological and engineering hurdles that remain. There are also regulatory hurdles that will need to be overcome before we can live in a world you can realistically expect to avoid ground traffic in an air taxi.
Hopefully, with all the investment going into the space, and the serious hitters involved, we can expect to live in that future sooner rather than later.