Autonomous passenger drones have been in development for almost a decade. However, we are yet to see these drone taxis become a readily available mode of transportation. Several companies have unveiled multiple models of their autonomous passenger drones throughout the years. Drones such as Ehang 216, Kitty Hawk’s Heaviside, and Boeing’s PAV, have already demonstrated impressive numbers. So why don’t we see passenger drones flying around?
One of the primary reasons that passenger drones haven’t become the norm is regulations. Regulating aerial vehicles such as these drones is a high-risk operation. More so in dense urban areas. This is the same reason drone delivery has not gone mainstream yet. To put it simply, it is extremely difficult to operate and monitor drones of such high capacity in urban environments. Therefore, meticulous testing is required before aviation authorities can approve the use of drones for transportation.
Given below are some of the passenger drones that are in their testing phase. These drones are likely to begin commercial operations by 2025.
Ehang, a China-based company, was the first company to begin developing autonomous passenger drones. Started in 2015, the company has developed three passenger drones. It unveiled the Ehang 186 drone in 2016 as the world’s first autonomous passenger drone. The second drone developed by the company is the Ehang 216 which is currently under testing and remote use across the world. The 216 is a 2-seater drone with a payload capacity of 220kg and a range of 35km.
Status of the drone
In June 2021, the Ehang 216 drone completed its maiden test flight in Japan. The company said in a press release that they obtained “a trial flight permit from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism of Japan (“MLIT”) with a local partner. EHang 216 was the first passenger-grade AAV granted permission for outdoor open airspace trial flights in Japan”
The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) already gave its approval in 2018, for test flights in rural areas. Other test flight approvals received by the company are from Transport Canada for test flights in Quebec and the Austrian government.
Recently Ehang released a completely new passenger drone called the Ehang VT-30. It’s an EVTOL drone that can take off vertically but fly like a fixed-wing aircraft. This will increase its range massively. The VT-30 could be a gamechanger for urban mobility and even enable inter-city travel.
Heaviside by Kitty Hawk
The Heaviside is an ambitious autonomous passenger drone project by American drone manufacturer Kitty Hawk. The company began the project in 2010 and has been testing and improving its passenger drones ever since. They came out with two other projects Flyer, and Cora, both of which ran for a short period of time.
Heaviside, on the other hand, has already gotten airworthiness approval from the US Air Force. The drone program is still under testing and could get FAA approval in the near future. Heaviside is a behemoth of a drone. With a 100 mile range, EVTOL capability, and a noiseless flight, it is the perfect urban transportation UAV. Read more about Kitty Hawk and its projects here.
While the drone solutions have already been developed, large-scale implementation will still take 8-10 years from now. This is not just because regulations for autonomous passenger drones don’t exist, there are a string of problems associated with it. Since these drones will be autonomous, like any other device they are highly susceptible to software attacks. Thus, apart from the physical safety standards, these drones will require an advanced software solution to safeguard against such attacks.
Secondly, while the drones are already being tested, the infrastructure to scale up this transportation model does not exist. Creating a vast inter-city network not only requires years of work but billions of dollars. This includes creating dedicated droneports, base stations, UTM services for manned UAVs, and a plethora of other requirements. Ultimately, the most important factor for passenger drones to work is the question “how economical will these drones be?”
A bus can transport nearly a hundred passengers from point A to point B at an affordable price. A metro/subway or tram system can do the same but much faster and in gigantic quantities. The point is, can two or even four-seater passenger drones solve the urban commuting problem? Will they be economical enough to compete with existing transport solutions? Considering that current passenger drones can fly at speeds up to 180 mph (289 km/h), commute times could be reduced drastically. Therefore, such a mode of transportation would only be feasible when implemented at a mass scale, which as mentioned before, will take another decade.