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Over the top: Automated drone taxis promise to fly travelers to their destinations

December 13, 2017
The Volocopter drone

One of the great things about technology is that it has advanced to the point that it is now showing the promise of solving problems that have previously been considered intractable. Think about self-driving cars ability to substantially reduce the number of accidents (almost all accidents are human error) and, hence, vastly improve traffic flow on busy highways and thoroughfares. The full deployment of self-driving cars could take a long time, though, and is an expensive proposition, at least in the near term.

Yet another transportation technology that could leapfrog driverless cars is about to be deployed in Dubai and probably many other cities in the not-too-distant future. They are self-navigating drone taxis that can be called to the scene via an app on your smart phone so you can be transported by air to the destination, without the time and frustration involved in traffic jams.

The Volocopter, manufacturer by a German company, is the drone in question, though a competing Chinese company named eHang was supposed to be the first to launch a fleet of flying taxis in the city, but its plans appear to have been delayed, according to a report published by the BBC.

To see a short video of the Volocopter in action, click here.

To see a 90-second video of the eHang version of a drone taxi, click here.

Dubai, the largest and most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, has already conducted its first test of the drone taxi service that it hopes will become a viable transportation system in the city. The two-seater, 18-rotor unmanned vehicle took off for a five-minute flight above a strip of sand on the Gulf coast. The Volocopter is a self-piloting, electric aircraft that is less noisy than a helicopter.

Bringing drone taxis to the city is part of a larger plan outlined by Dubai leaders to have 25 percent of local passenger trips made aboard autonomous vehicles. It’s all part of an ambitious effort to turn Dubai in a “smart city,” with drones and robots central to its plans.

Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter told the BBC, “Implementation would see you using your smart phone, 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.”

The BBC also quoted Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist and robotics expert at Sheffield University, who said the big challenge with drone transportation will be “dynamic obstacle avoidance of other taxis, buildings, birds and delivery drones. The skies over Dubai could become uncomfortably crowded very quickly.”

Obviously, coordination will be required, and air lanes will have to be created. Considering how crowded so many urban streets and highways have become, many people will probably be far more comfortable going right over the top of the vehicular snarl.

Suffice it to say that air taxis, if successful in Dubai, will soon take to the skies over cities around the world.

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