Flying cars might still be the stuff of science fiction, but in recent years quadcopter drones have become remarkably accessible and affordable. That’s why a number of start-ups, engineers and transit officials want to develop autonomous drones that are large enough to ferry people to and from work on their daily commutes.
Last October, popular ridesharing company Uber unveiled its Elevate program, which is designed to conduct R&D on the future of urban air travel. They even hired an aircraft engineer from NASA’s Langley Research Center to help spearhead the research. Meanwhile, engineers in the robotics department at Carnegie Mellon University are conducting similar research in hope of developing a viable self-flying passenger drone. Not to be outdone, Google co-founder Larry Page has also provided financial backing for two Silicon Valley start-ups that are working to develop vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft for urban transit.
Because they can travel in straight lines between destinations rather than relying on roadways, passenger drones could make commutes in crowded cities much faster. By some estimates, they could reduce hour-long commutes in congested traffic to a matter of minutes. Quadcopter drones are also relatively lightweight and mechanically simple, which makes large-scale passenger drones seem pretty plausible. Thanks to companies like Tesla and Google, the idea of self-flying vehicles doesn’t even seem too farfetched.
But even if engineers can successfully develop autonomous passenger drones, there are still some logistical and regulatory hurdles that must be overcome before they can take to the skies.
To begin with, autonomous passenger drones will need to be able to communicate with one another to avoid mid-air collisions. This would require drone manufacturers to agree on an industry-standard communication protocol, and establish a way to network their drones so that they can send and receive feedback in real time. Furthermore, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is still working to establish rules and safety regulations for drone traffic. Without FAA approval, passenger drones will remain firmly on the ground until further notice.