Dubai embraces the future with test debut of ‘Air taxi’
Dubai - Dubai plans to operate the world’s first single-passenger Autonomous Aerial Vehicle (AAV) — a drone — capable of transporting a passenger at altitudes of 3,300 metres by July.
The Chinese-made, egg-shaped, four-legged aircraft — the Ehang 184 AAV — was showcased at the recent World Government Summit in Dubai. The vehicle was described by its Chinese manufacturers as “the safest, smartest eco-friendly, low-altitude autonomous aerial vehicle, providing medium- to short-distance communication and transportation solution”.
Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) has run tests of the AAV over the emirate, RTA Chief Executive Officer Mattar Al Tayer said.
“This is not only a model. We have actually experimented this vehicle flying in Dubai’s skies,” Tayer said.
The Ehang 184 is designed for a passenger weighing up to 100 kilograms carrying a small suitcase. The passenger can use the touchscreen in front of the seat to select a destination. The drone, which has a top speed of 160 kph, would fly there automatically. Officials in Dubai said the vehicles would likely be operated at 100 kph.
The drone’s battery allows for a half-hour flight time and a range of up to 50km. The drone would be remotely monitored through a ground-based control room and controlled through 4G mobile internet.
“In theory, it’s a great proposition. In reality, it will be harder to execute, especially from a cost standpoint,” said London-based Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at StrategicAero Research.
“Someone has to absorb the costs without it being prohibitive to prospective users. “Then you have the other issue of airspace congestion and possible conflict with security around key airfields. There doesn’t seem to be an answer for that.
“Given that this is not autonomous mass transport like the Metro, I am finding it hard to believe that this idea, as novel as it is, will catch on, let alone expand. There’s nothing wrong in investing in new technology like this, but it has to be self-sustaining.”
Paul Epping, a technology expert and chapter leader of Singularity University Dubai, was more upbeat.
“To really work on positively impacting mobility, the drone concept means a big disruption at this moment,” he said. “It is not so much the autonomous or driverless drones but, rather, the fact that drones can inherently be safe and clean and that, due to autonomous functions, congestion problems will now partly be solved.
“It also opens up the possibility that you can be productive while being transported to your destination.”
“The challenge,” Epping said, “will be on who is going to use it? Is it affordable and do people trust autonomous flying? The focus is very much on the technology but less on the business aspects and human factor. These aspects need some attention.”
Although details of the project have not been unveiled, Epping said he expected actions with respect to these concerns and issues.
“How many cars/drones will fly? Where are the hubs? How to direct the passengers, etc.?” he asked. “Will the service be flexible enough relative to the price? What about the noise? Dubai already is a very noisy city — traffic and construction. I think that the citizens need to have a bit more insight into this to make it a success.”
Dubai boasts one of the world’s largest driverless Metro networks, which has served 830 million passengers in seven years of operation.
The RTA also initiated autonomous driverless vehicles recently on limited test routes to further its target of delivering driverless mobility to 25% of the population by 2030.
Dubai is a test market for some of the most cutting-edge technologies, especially in transportation. Last October, officials signed a deal with Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One to study the potential for connecting Dubai to Abu Dhabi with a train that could travel 1,220 kph.
The emirate’s ports authority, DP World, one of the leading global port operators, is planning to use hyperloop technology at Dubai’s Jebel Ali Port to transport containers from the port to an inland depot 29km away. DP World has been automating many of its logistics operations using driverless trucks and remote-controlled cranes.
For a region dependent on its expatriate workforce, the strategy seems to be aimed at leapfrogging into the future and enabling the local population to embrace exponential technologies such as renewable energy and space exploration.