Imagine a time without cars. Just over a century ago, streets were meant for pedestrians just as much as they were for horses and carriages. There was no traffic, no parking lots. To get somewhere you’d walk, hop on a horse-drawn trolley, or take the train. It may seem like a romantic departure from our current lives, but it’s not quite so romantic. If it was raining, you’d be sure to get wet and muddy. If you had to travel a long distance, pack your patience. And if you lived in a large city like New York, the streets were piling up with horse manure from the horse-drawn carriages and trolleys. So we invented the horseless carriage and this changed everything. Now our countries are connected by freeways, highways and no longer do we need to take the train– we can fly across the country in hours time. Before I digress any further, the point of this look back in time is to help understand that we are at a new turning point in how we move around as people. Cars are the new horse-drawn carriages and there’s a new option for transport promised to us– the drone.
Drones, you either love them or hate them. Drones have a negative connotation to many. They’re seen as invasive, annoying, and sometimes a hazard to the environment and people. No wonder the National Parks joined a growing list of places that ban them. Even the FAA stepped in to regulate drone flights by requiring a drone pilot’s license for professional operations. Alas, if you’re a drone belittler, you may have to stand by and accept this newcomer. Drones and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are here to stay.
Drones are being tested as a delivery service for Amazon and UPS. You may be shocked to hear that UPS has already been cleared and approved for drone delivery by the FAA. While they haven’t launched a full-scale delivery service, be prepared for the next few years as we see more and more deliveries happen by air. While the conversation of delivery drones dominates the news cycles, there’s a much bigger and potentially more disruptive aerial giant coming– the passenger drone.
Uber, Boeing, Airbus, and Lilium are just a few of the companies with prototypes of passenger drones hoping to take to the skies in this coming decade. They hope to expand our options for transportation in dense urban areas. Many are going to be used as air shuttles or taxis between city centers and airports. Some may have the range to go between cities near one another. Others plan to have a flexible on-demand structure. Either way, these companies are envisioning a future where we can skip the freeways and streets and take a drone, saving time and lessening congestion. While the pricing on these flights is yet to be determined, many companies are aiming for an approachable pricing plan. So, when can we fly over the rush hour traffic? Probably not soon.
Will They Fly?
Seeing as many of these prototypes have yet to make a test flight, except for the Lilium Jet and the Ehang 184, we’ve got a lot of waiting to do. As with all new technologies, there are plenty of hurdles to pass, from test flights to certification to regulation. Even the two drones which made test flights have yet to be certified for passenger service by the FAA or ICAO. Beyond that, these companies would need to manufacture enough drones to become viable, acquire an operation certification, and find a way to land near an airport without entering the restricted airspace. There are many details to comb through and even more red tape but the real question is, will it even work?
In ten years, let’s assume a few of these passenger drones have taken off and are regularly servicing inter-city passengers. Let’s also assume the prices are genuinely approachable, much like Lyft or Uber would be. So if you live in a city center, and you’re flying to the airport, good news! You can skip all of the build-up traffic around the passenger terminals. But what if you live in the suburbs and you still have to take your car to the city center to get on a drone? Or if they had alternative take-off locations, but none were close by, you’re still stuck driving. Even if enough people do end up taking these shuttles, would it mitigate traffic enough? Imagine our skies filled with giant swarming drones and we still have to wait hours in traffic. What’s the point? There seems to be no way of knowing until we see it for ourselves.
Sure, in the 2020 decade we’re going to see these air shuttles in the air regardless and they promise to change the way we commute. There’s a lot of promise in this emerging industry, a lot of questions, too. Just as with the advent of the car, not everyone will have access to the UAVs of the future. It might be 30 years before the market or technology catches up to the general public and passenger drones become as commonplace as cars are now. Maybe the Jetsons and The Fifth Element got it right– flying cars are in our future. The sad reality is that right now, they don’t look as cool (some look pretty ridiculous). I can settle for a drone shuttle for now.