Forget flying cars — passenger drones are the future

In the July 1924 issue of Popular Science, “Ace of Aces” fighter pilot E.V. Rickenbacker told readers to expect “Flying Autos in 20 Years.” Rickenbacker’s flying car would have retractable 12.5-foot wings, a sea-worthy hull and wheels to cruise America’s growing network of highways.

Ninety-three years later, personal cars remain land-bound. But Rickenbacker’s car-like plane still dominates our idea of what a flying car should be. That expectation — ingrained in decades of pop culture and copied by real technologists — has held back innovation.

The winning “flying car” is going to be a passenger drone, and you won’t find it cruising the highways. It will fly only and blend the best of autonomous driving technologies, ridesharing software and drone engineering. And it will hit the friendly skies soon, perhaps within 10 years. The conventional flying car is a dead-end, but the barriers to passenger drones are all surmountable.

The easy part

If you expected to zip around the skies in your personal flying car, I’m sorry to burst your bubble. If every rider had to fly 40 hours to earn an FAA-approved Private Pilot license, there would be no market. The passenger drone must be fully automated, and that is easier than it sounds.

Tesla, Google, Uber and other autonomous car makers are within three to five years of commercializing self-driving cars that require no human oversight. All the machine learning algorithms, sensors and safety systems from that effort will serve passenger drones equally well, if not better. Compared to cars, drones will face fewer unpredictable obstacles in the sky and have far more options for evading accidents.

Let’s give passenger drones some airspace and shift the way we think about personal mobility.

The ridesharing software from companies like Uber and Lyft will be crucial, as well. Besides island-buying billionaires, no one will own passenger drones because they will be prohibitively expensive. Instead, the drones will be offered in taxi or ridesharing services. The Uber and Lyft apps are just what we need for passenger drones. The rider will tap to book a drone, which will fly to the pickup location, land and take off vertically and then fly to the requested address.

The other “easy” but dicey part of passenger drones is the vehicle design. Most of us have seen either the U.S. military’s winged Predator drones or the tiny quadcopter drones flown by enthusiasts at parks. For passengers, what we need is a blend — a large quadcopter with fixed wings that can sustain flight with a heavy load yet maneuver in cluttered urban environments. It might resemble a larger version of the newest Amazon delivery drone.

The hard part

Passenger-drone development is further along than many people realize. In June 2016, the Chinese firm EHang received clearance from Nevada to test the world’s first passenger drone. The Guardian reports that the drone can fly at up to 11,500 feet at 63 mph, but only for 23 minutes. Uber believes that Uber Elevate, an on-demand air transportation service, is achievable within a decade. Its fleet of electric Vertical Take-off and Landing aircraft (VTOLs) would resemble Lilium Aviation’s jet, which just raised a $10 million Series A. Soon enough, drone makers like DJI, 3D Robotics, Hubsan and even Amazon may put their own passenger vehicles in the race.

These companies will run into two main barriers:

Charging. Currently, battery life is the biggest hurdle for drone makers that wish to increase flight times. A breakthrough in battery technology is no guarantee, but no reason to wait.

Passenger drones will simply need infrastructure for mid-air charging. LaserMotive, a Seattle-based wireless charging startup, shows promise here. Back in 2012, they ran an experiment with Lockheed Martin to extend the flight time of the Stalker Unmanned Aerial System. Their “laser power beaming” kept the drone in flight by targeting lasers at photovoltaic cells (i.e. solar panels) mounted on the vehicle. They sustained flight for 48 hours, marking a 2,400 percent improvement over the usual flight time.

Beaming high-energy lasers into the skies sounds sketchy, but not if drone infrastructure minimizes and compartmentalizes accidents. Cities could designate drone highways and restrict laser charging to those aerial thoroughfares. mid-air charging would drastically extend flight times and flights per day, as drones would never have to land for charging.

Regulation. Unfortunately, the FAA has been slow to address the drone industry’s call for comprehensive regulations. The existing rules, updated by the FAA in August 2016, insist that drones must be within line of sight and must always be controlled by a live operator. They will strangle further innovation — at least in the U.S.

Other countries have welcomed autonomous drones with open arms. For example, Delft, a city in the Netherlands, has agreed to host the first fully autonomous drone network, complete with docking stations and drone rentals. Moreover, Flirtey and Domino’s chose New Zealand for the world’s first commercial drone delivery service because of the country’s friendly regulations. They airlifted the first pizza to customers on November 16.

The U.S. could make a comeback by testing passenger drones with emergency services. Regulators could clear ambulance and search-and-rescue drones for life-and-death situations. In cases of cardiac arrest, for instance, victims need treatment within six minutes for a chance at survival. For people who live in New York, where the average ambulance response time was over 12 minutes in 2015, why not deploy a paramedic and a defibrillator in a drone? Why not take a risk on saving people who would have no chance otherwise? Such trial cases could break down regulatory resistance to autonomous drones.

A better symbol of progress

Movies, books and TV shows have set the expectation that innovators would, eventually, deliver personal flying vehicles. Although many discount this as mere science fiction, the truth is we’re almost there.

While we won’t get the archetypal flying car that E.V. Rickenbacker imagined, we will get something even better. Passenger drones could save Americans from spending 6.9 billion hours per year stuck in traffic. More importantly, emergency passenger drones could prevent thousands of needless deaths. Let’s give passenger drones some airspace and shift the way we think about personal mobility.