Air Deliveries and Air Taxis: Finally Solving Urban Gridlock
Here is a great question to ask any futurist or foresighter: What have you changed your mind about in recent years? In 2014, I didn’t think that drones for air deliveries and commuting were going to arrive anywhere in the world within ten years, or by 2025. The challenges seemed too daunting, and the investments and competition in the space just too small to make a difference. Since then, I’ve come to realize I was wrong. If I’d been paying closer attention to the enabling technology trends, I would have changed my mind. The US, China, Dubai, and Israel are all experimenting with these today, and all of these and many other places are likely to allow commercial operations by 2025. Dubai is moving first, with their future-oriented leadership, with a maiden air taxi test flight with Volocopter in Sept 2017 and a planned first commercial service launch with eHang this Summer.
Mar 13 Update: Kitty Hawk (Sebastian Thrun and Larry Page), is now seeking to offer Uber-style air taxis in New Zealand within 3 years.
So let me ask you: what big future events have you changed your mind about in recent years? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
As we’ll now see, a fantastic and incredibly profitable new global mobility solution is now on our ten year horizon with passenger drones (aka “multi-rotor electric AVs”) and their less-recognized cousins, droneplanes (aka “fixed- and variable wing EVTOL AVs” — that’s a mouthful). Purists remind us that “drones” originally referred to only the unmanned variety, but everyone is now calling these human-carrying machines drones as well, and I recommend you do too. It’s a perfectly good one-syllable word.
These new technologies are going to solve our centuries-old problem of urban gridlock, by safely, quietly, and sustainably moving the transportation of growing quantities of goods and people into the third dimension, the air. Unlike digging under ground, which will go far slower, these systems will take us nearly point-to-point, they are far easier to scale, and their load can increase with demand, with no additional construction costs.
In coming decades, these clever new machines will be built into very fast and efficient air delivery and air taxi networks, on-demand services that can achieve incredibly high densities in leading cities. Using them will be expensive in the 2020’s, and it is my hope that we’ll see air deliveries for urgent goods first, but the most exciting application, multipassenger commuter drones, should start to get mass-affordable for daily use in the 2030s. So just like we see with pollution, spam, and other technology-created or enabled problems, we can predict urban gridlock will subside, at an accelerating rate, as these networks start to seriously scale in the 2030s.
Consider that removing urban gridlock is a far more exciting and valuable objective than, for example, going faster between major urban areas. Even if we had a Hyperloop train between LA and San Francisco today, we’d still be stuck with the awful traffic in each of those destinations once we got there. It’s the 30 billion hours that Americans spend commuting each year, the full week of each of our lives that we waste in traffic annually, that are the top transportation problems for urbanites everywhere. Self-driving cars are part of the solution, but they are going to be stuck on our gridlocked road systems, just like every other car. With the arrival of safe, cheap, and quiet air taxi networks, we can finally see the full solution ahead.
What’s more, because drone networks are more like point-to-point-capable trains than cars, which sit unused 95% of the time, we’ll need a lot less of these vehicles than most of us might initially think, to serve all our leading cities in coming decades, as we’ll discuss.
All the Key Air Delivery and Air Taxi Problems are Being Solved Today — This Future is Almost Upon Us
Today’s drones and droneplanes are still too noisy, unsafe, non-autonomous, expensive, and range-, speed- and power-limited. We also can’t imagine how they’ll be beautiful, if many are flying around in the air. But all six of these critical adoption problems are being rapidly solved today.
Let’s briefly discuss each of these issues now, and see how.
1.Noise. To be allowed in the air in large numbers, package delivery and commuter drones will have to be far less noisy than our current quadrotor drones. Fortunately, the more rotors one adds, and once each rotor can adjust to operate at a slightly different RPM than the others, the quieter drones become. The Daimler-backed Volocopter pictured above, with a particularly safe 18-rotor design that also incorporates a whole-drone parachute, presently claims to be 7X quieter than a helicopter.
These drones become even quieter when you enclose the rotors inside a carbon-fiber tube, creating a ducted fan, which we already find in designs like the Lilium and Urban Aeronautics drones today. A multifan design like Lilium’s (picture below) seems like it has the potential to be the quietest. The rotor-enclosing tubes can be noise insulated, and the edges can be dynamically adjusted by micromotors, to make the the air rushing through them even quieter yet.
NASA has been at the forefront of making quieter drones for several years. We just have to mandate low-decibel designs in our cities, as we will surely do, even before they are in the air in any significant numbers. Stealth startup Joby Aviation, one of the leaders in the passenger drone race today, whose design we haven’t seen publicly yet, plans to make their drones 100X quieter than a helicopter on takeoff and landing, and silent when flying over private residences. That would surely be quiet enough for mass adoption.
Fortunately, sound levels drop 6 dB with every doubling of distance, so we can require our air delivery and taxi drones to fly high enough not to be heard. Unless they are low-noise engineered, most of today’s drones might have to rise above 3,000 feet before finding a virtual lane in the sky. In some urban areas, drones may allowed to fly low over highways, adding to highway noise. But I hope that doesn’t happen. I think we citizens should fight to reduce our current levels of noise pollution. We need to measure and reduce urban noise, not keep adding to it.
Eventually, I expect our better droneplanes will have reconfigurable wings, allowing them to temporarily double in surface area, like a bird stretching out its feathers, for slow gliding landings. Some will eventually even be like ornithopters, able to do flapping takeoffs in their first few hundred feet before turning on their rotors, much like a bird, making them near silent even on takeoff in noise-sensitive areas. The first of these two examples of bio-inspired design may be technically feasible soon, and the second perhaps a generation from today.
2. Safety. People have a very negative psychological reaction to things falling out of the sky. Some of our worst nightmares are of large birds, snakes, spiders, or other things falling down from above us. We humans obsess out of all proportion over plane accidents versus ground accidents, perhaps due to some evolutionary bias, or perhaps because plane accidents feel particularly outside of our control and able to strike anywhere, not just on our streets. Whatever the cause of this sensitivity, we will need a set of smart technologies and strategies able to quell this reaction as drones increasingly proliferate.
Fortunately, advanced safety solutions exist today, or are on the near-term horizon. Some of these are expensive, but in the best of all worlds, I hope we’ll require them all before we see drones in large numbers flying overhead.
First, notice that the more rotors one adds, the safer they become. Multi-rotor design allows drones to have double, triple, or more system redundancy, with each rotor group running on separate circuits. Each rotor group is like an independent swarm of birds holding you up, and each rotor group can auto-land the drone if the others fail. This redundancy is another great example of bio-inspired design. Our Apollo astronauts went to the moon with triple redundancy, and that seems a very smart safety strategy for our drones.
Another strategy to get people comfortable with drones is to show that they are uniquely helpful in improving public safety. Israel’s Urban Aeronautics is working on a drone ambulance system, a bold and clever early use case, wherever there is political will for better emergency services. These would be much more useful and inexpensive than today’s helicopters. Human-carrying rescue, police and military drones are also of great value. But as David Brin keenly observes in the Transparent Society, democratic societies desire at least 20X more of these scary technologies (drones, cameras, AIs, guns, etc.) in public hands than in governmental hands. That is why air taxis and privately-owned personal drones are also such critical developments. We don’t want to live, or feel like we live, in an Orwellian state.
Parachutes are another excellent way to increase safety and remove passenger and ground anxiety. Until they have something like robotically reconfigurable carbon fiber wings and can glide to the ground like birds (2050s?), I think both package and commuter drones should also be required to have drone parachutes that unfold rapidly above the drone (via electromagnets, compressed CO2, or airbag-class explosives) in case of mechanical failure. Skycat is one of several companies that offer such rapid-deploying parachutes for small drones today.
Companies like Ballistic Recovery Systems are leaders in putting lightweight whole-plane parachutes on private planes. Their home page credits these parachutes with saving 376 lives so far (2018). Watch this video of an acrobatic plane safely landing after its wing falls off (at 2:20), if you don’t believe these work. Whole-drone parachutes can be made very small and light, and I hope they’ll be required in all urban drones that can’t do a “deadstick” (gliding) landing as slow as parachutes can.
Our coming drones also should have an airbag ecosystem that rapidly deploys inside and below the drone, triggered by AI, accelerometers and sonar, a system that is also deployable manually in case of AI failure. The REAPS system of external airbags is an excellent example of safety tech that all our airborne drones need. It was trialed by the very innovative Israeli defense company Rafael, makers of the Iron Dome air defense system, on helicopters for the US Navy in 2005 (picture below). These airbags offer excellent protection for occupants in low-velocity crashes, but unfortunately, there’s never been the political will to make them necessary on any rotorcraft anywhere yet, military or otherwise. Let’s hope that changes soon.