One of the most interesting developments in sci-tech in the past few years is the sudden interest in the concept of “passenger drones“. That appears to be their most popular name, though you may have heard of them as “drone taxis” and “autonomous flying cars”. I’ve even seen the term “pilotless helicopter” used once or twice (though drones don’t necessarily have to be rotored vehicles). For the sake of this article, I’ll stick with ‘passenger drone’.
So what exactly is a passenger drone? In short, its name gives it away— a drone that can carry passengers. Typically, drones are defined as being “unmanned aerial vehicles”. You can see the conflict in definitions, hence why some are hesitant to actually call these ‘drones’. Nevertheless, linguistic drift has changed the definition of drone and that’s something drone hobbyists have to live with.
I say this because passenger drones are based on the designs of quadcopters, now popularly referred to as ‘drones’.
But enough about the linguistics.
Passenger drones represent the closest realization of yesteryear’s dream of flying cars. They are personal vehicles that theoretically anyone can own and use with ease, and they indeed work in three dimensions*. So why should we care about them when that dream has never come true before now?
*”Three dimensions” in transportation terms refers to the inclusion of flight. “Two dimensions” refers to ground and sea travel.
Simple: your answer is in the name. Again.
This is a drone. That means you are not the one piloting the vehicle. And I don’t mean ‘you’ specifically, but ‘you’ as a human. Humans did not evolve to navigate 3D space. We can barely manage traveling in 2D space at high speeds— proto-humans never had to move any faster than their fastest sprint. This becomes obvious when you view motor vehicle statistics. In the United States of America alone, over 30,000 people die in vehicular accidents yearly.
And despite this, we are not even in the top 5 for “most killed yearly in motor accidents.” The number one country is, not surprisingly, China: they lose well over 250,000 a year in car accidents.
Worldwide, 1.25 million die every year in motor accidents. And note, that’s deaths, not casualties. All of this is evidence that humankind is simply not designed well to casually travel at speeds higher than 20 miles per hour.
To throw another dimension and another two hundred miles per hour at us would unleash gigadeaths per year until humanity as a whole finally gives up. Human extinction by flying car.
This is the chief reason why flying cars aren’t a thing. Humans simply cannot handle it. Pilots have to go through thousands of hours of training just to become proficient, and that’s with vehicles that are already highly automated.
Indeed, as of right now, the closest thing to a “flying car” is a Cessna 172.
Of course, other reasons include the fact roadable vehicles and flying vehicles require completely different designs and aerodynamics, as well as the power requirements necessary to keep such a vehicle in the air. But perhaps we could overcome these issues if only there were a way for the common person to actually survive take-off, flight, and landing without killing himself.
Drones are that solution. Take away the need for the common person to do the flying.
That’s the promise passenger drones offer us. Again, there’s still the issue that flying is inefficient, but it’s always possible that passenger drones become a common sight over cities. Perhaps they’ll be privately owned; perhaps they’ll be municipally owned and rented out for use. This remains to be seen because the idea of flying cars and personal aerial vehicles being a real thing only became feasible within the past couple of years.
As of today, 4 April 2017, the first passenger drones will enter operation in Dubai, UAE in the summer of this year.