Dubai embraces the future with test debut of ‘Air taxi’

March 05, 2017
Flying to the future. A model of the EHang 184 autonomous aerial vehicle is displayed at the World Government Summit 2017 in Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah, on February 13th. (AFP)

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.