Up, Up and Away

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Published in The Foundation magazine, Qatar Foundation.
Download PDF here.

The era of pilotless flying taxis may be upon us, with Dubai set to receive a fleet of driverless passenger drones this summer. But is the public ready?

Flying cars have been a popular component of science fiction ever since the 1920s when Henry Ford tried to launch the ‘Model T of the Air’ – needless to say, it spent less time in the air, and more time in a nearby scrapyard. Yet, Ford remained hopeful – over two decades later, he is known to have famously said: “Mark my word: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”

Almost a century has passed since the historic failure of the ‘Model T of the Air’, and personal automated flying vehicles have largely remained confined to science fiction books, and children’s cartoons.  Until now.

First launched at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, the battery-operated autonomous quad copter, EHang 184, is soon going to be making waves in the skies above Dubai as early as July 2017. The launch of EHang 184 will make Dubai the first city in the world with automated flying vehicles as part of their public transportation system.

Of course, the futuristic city is no stranger to automated vehicles – Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, has announced that 25 percent of all passenger trips in the city would be done via automated vehicles by 2030. To that end, Dubai already boasts of the world’s longest driverless metro which is ridden by over 600,000 people every day. Speaking at the 2017 World Government Summit (WGS), Mattar Al Tayer, Director General of the UAE’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), announced that other “driverless mini-buses, vehicles, and boats” were also in the works.

Programming Safety

Autonomous vehicles require extensive research and testing before being deemed road-safe, or as in the case of EHang 184, flight-safe. By definition, passengers in self-driving vehicles, have little to no control. This means that not only do all vehicles need to be equipped with state-of-the-art navigation systems, they also need to be able to react appropriately to unexpected occurrences during the journey. For example, if the car in front of a human driver stops suddenly, they know to the jam the breaks, mutter under their breath, and drive on. The challenge with self-driving vehicles is programming them to account for the types of eventualities that occur on the roads.

That leads us to one of the biggest challenges of automated vehicles. While we have already developed the technology to make them as safe, if not safer, than manned vehicles, the task of making the public believe that they are safe is a whole different story. Al Tayer refers to this challenge in his speech at the WGS, describing the RTA’s decision to hire a ‘dummy driver’ to ease the public into the idea of riding in Dubai’s driverless metro.

EHang 184 certainly provides Dubai’s residents with a viable alternative to traversing its car-logged streets on a daily basis. The current model can fly a single passenger, weighing up to 100 kilograms, and a small suitcase for a total of 30 minutes or 50 kilometers before needing to re-charge. After buckling into the craft’s race-car-style seat, the passenger then needs to key in their destination onto the touchscreen panel, and sit back while the drone flies them there.

In the case of any mid-air malfunctioning, EHang’s fail-safe is activated, and it slowly lowers to the ground, folds its propellers inwards and “parks” in a single car parking space. Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of EHang 184’s design is the absence of a passenger override feature – once in the air, passengers have no control over the drone – not even in an emergency. One has to wonder about the safety of driverless flying vehicles in a city where sandstorms are known to reach speeds of over 130 kilometres per hour.

Will a respite from the congestion and traffic be enough to embolden residents to give the EHang 184 a whirl? Al Tayer certainly seems to think so. Citing the many benefits of the EHang, he noted that Dubai’s Autonomous Mobility Strategy is predicted to reduce the number of accidents and carbon emissions by 12 percent each, improve the issue of parking scarcity by 50 percent, and reduce mobility expenditure by 44 percent.

Al Tayer insists that EHang 184 is more than just a model. “We have actually experimented with this vehicle flying in Dubai’s skies.” Confident that EHang will catch on Dubai, Al Tayer adds that traveling on it will soon be “like boarding a lift.  All of us trust the closed box that lifts us to different levels as we know it is secure, ready, and tested.”

Whether Dubai residents will embrace this opportunity to spare themselves the arduous commute, or decide that the EHang isn’t a risk worth taking, is yet to be seen.


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