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The dream of the flying car could come down to earth before it gets off the ground. Rising in its place: a network of self-flying drones big enough to ferry individual commuters around town. That’s the future envisioned by several start-ups that are developing so-called “passenger drones,” which could shrink commute times from hours to minutes.

At first blush, human-carrying drones sound no more realistic than flying cars. Until recently inventors had never been able to marry automobiles and aircraft in a practical way. Yet a few companies have kept at it: Woburn, Mass.–based Terrafugia, for example, has since 2006 been developing Transition, a “roadable aircraft” that resembles a small airplane that can fold its wings and drive on roads. A personal flying car in every garage has proved to be a tough sell, however, and there are serious safety concerns about asking the average commuter to train for a pilot’s license and take to the skies.

Passenger drones, by contrast, would operate autonomously and leave the “roadable” part behind in favor of larger versions of aircraft that already exist. Chinese start-up EHANG last month announced it would debut its passenger drone service in Dubai in July. The EHANG184 autonomous aerial vehicle resembles an overgrown quadcopter with a passenger cab perched on top. Last October ride-hailing service Uber publicized its Elevate program for urban air transportation and announced support for companies building vehicles similar to the 184. Uber recently bolstered its plans by hiring Mark Moore, an aircraft engineer at NASA Langley Research Center and pioneer in vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft designs. Several other companies, including Joby Aviation and Silicon Valley start-ups Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk—the latter two backed by Google co-founder Larry Page—are racing to develop electric-powered VTOL aircraft that could help make Elevate a reality. Terrafugia likewise plans to eventually offer a VTOL flying vehicle—the TF-X—in addition to the Transition.

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Category: Science