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What Does the Future of Passenger Drones Look Like?

Why not skip that self-driving car (or personal jetpack), and go straight to the autonomous flying taxi?

We are all familiar with popular incarnations of drone technology: stealthy military missions, disaster relief to inaccessible areas, or quick delivery from online retailers to your front porch. But just as autonomous vehicles (AVs) are now a part of today’s conversation on transportation, passenger-carrying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are not far behind.

Paging George Jetson

While several companies (like Airbus) have passenger drones in development, the first commercial prototype debuted at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada. Made by the Chinese UAV company EHang, the electric-powered quadcopter EHang 184 is over four feet high, weighs a little less than 450 pounds, and will carry a single passenger at 60 mph for almost half an hour. After you climb in through its gullwing doors, all you have to do is input your destination and enjoy the ride.

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Talk About Getting a Lift

At the 2016 CES, most industry watchers thought the EHang prototype was more of a marketing piece to attract attention to the company’s more conventional drones as commercial applications were seen to be years away. However, in the summer of 2017, the United Arab Emirates will begin offering an air taxi service via the 184 in Dubai.

The 184 being deployed will carry one average-sized adult with a small suitcase. It has a flight range of about 30 miles, automatically choosing the optimal route to its destination. There is no option for the passenger to take control; however, the 184 has redundant, failsafe software to avoid midair collisions and deal with mechanical failures. Plus, flights will be monitored by a Dubai Roads and Transportation Authority central control room.

Liability Concerns

Much like the ethical and liability concerns which are a part of the conversation about AVs, the same is true for UAVs. If an emergency landing is required — or a crash is imminent — is the primary concern of the UAV software to protect passengers or minimize loss of life on the ground?

For example, crash landing on a motorcycle would minimize UAV passenger injuries as opposed to hitting a semi-trailer truck. However, the crash would almost certainly kill the motorcycle’s rider as opposed to hitting a sturdier vehicle which provides more protection to its driver and any passengers. When liability is to be determined, is it the passenger, controller, software, or manufacturer who is ultimately responsible?

Once thought to be years away, passenger drones are arriving more quickly than expected. However, a drone with the ability to carry passengers doesn’t automatically resolve all the related safety, security, and legal issues. These issues will inevitably be ironed out as passenger drones become a ubiquitous presence in the sky.