It appears that Dubai will, after all, become the world’s first city to fill its skies with flying taxis in the not too distant future. Monday’s test flight of a taxi drone is indeed a giant step in that direction by the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), which has worked closely with the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority to streamline legislative and operational guidelines.
The much-hyped autonomous aerial taxi (AAT) – developed by German drone company Volocopter – is an unmanned flying vehicle with a two-seater cabin – very much similar to that of a conventional helicopter. Integrated atop the cabin is giant hoop with 18 rotors to keep the vehicle airborne.
The AAT is equipped with necessary fail-safes should the vehicle encounter any mid-air trouble, including two parachutes for worst case scenarios. Nine independent quick-charge battery systems can be fully juiced up in a mere 40 minutes, powering the craft for a maximum flight duration of 30 minutes. While the standard cruising speed of the Volocopter drones is 50 kph, they are capable of achieving speeds of up to 100 kph.
A number of U.S. and European companies, including Uber, Airbus, and Kitty Hawk among others, are also working on their own versions of unmanned aerial transport vehicle prototypes. However, Monday’s maiden test staged in the presence of Dubai Crown Prince Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, indicates that Volocopter may be a length or two ahead in the race.
“We only go public when we can show something that flies,” Alexander Zosel, Volocopter’s co-founder and chief innovation officer, told Reuters in an interview ahead of the Dubai trial. “We show facts, not visions.”
Explaining how the service has been planned to work, Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter said: “Implementation would see you using your smartphone, having an app, and ordering a Volocopter to the next voloport near you. The volocopter would come and autonomously pick you up and take you to your destination.”
“It already is capable of flying based on GPS tracks today, and we will implement full sense capability, also dealing with unknown obstacles on the way,” he added, giving an estimated timeline of five years for developers to initiate the service.
Sheikh Hamdan, looking regal in a traditional white robe and headdress, witnessed history in the making from a viewing deck while the craft soared to a height of 200 meters. The Crown Prince and his entourage applauded generously as the ATT finally alighted after staying airborne for some five minutes. The drone used in the trial is a Volocopter 2X.
“Encouraging innovation and adopting the latest technologies contributes not only to the country’s development but also builds bridges into the future,” Sheikh Hamdan said in a statement.
It must be pointed out that the first version of the ambitious project employed the Chinese Ehang 184, a 500-pound, single-seat passenger drone. While the Dubai RTA has not given a reason for the switch over to Volocopter, they did praise the German firm for its reputation for safety.