RobotRepublicNoel Sharkey — When I was a child in the 1950s, it was hard to find a story of the future that didn’t include flying cars.

By the time I grew up, they predicted, the skies would be full of them.

That hasn’t happened exactly. But hold on to your hat: Flying cars — that is, autonomous air taxies (AAT) — are about to get real over in Dubai. The nation’s Road and Transport Authority (RTA) is testing a new drone taxi service over the next several years. It’s selected two autonomous passenger drone technologies and will put them through their paces.

So who is building these systems? And what’s the tech?

Here’s my look at Volocopter and EHang, two autonomous passenger drone vehicle that will soon be flying high in Dubai.

Two seats, all green: The Volocopter

RTA signed a deal with Volocopter, a German-based company, and they will rigorously test the new drone taxi for a period of five years to help with the legislation process.

Here it is, below.

Based in Germany, Volocopter is a high-flying startup in the drone world. In its short lifespan, it’s raised some 25 million Euro from investors including Daimler, according to company materials.

As for its eponymously named drone, the Velocopter is capable of going up to 60 mph (100 hm/hour) and flying for about 30 minutes at a time. It is completely battery powered, and it takes about 40 minutes to recharge the drone’s nine fully independent batteries.

The Dubai RTA says it selected Volocopter for the trial largely because of its super redundant motor design. There are 18 rotors. Another boon: It’s a two-passenger drone. And it lands automatically.

Watch the video. The Velocopter might make you think of a helicopter, but this drone is nowhere near that noisy.

The 100 MPH Chinese Quadcopter: EHang 184

And then there’s the Chinese EHang 184, the second flying car in the Dubai Drone taxi test. It’s a quadcopter capable of up to 100 mph.
The 220 lb. drone will fly 30 minutes on its battery, but recharges take about two hours. Watch.

The taxi appears to be autonomous.

The passenger just selects destination from a touch screen and away it goes.

Like the Velocopter, the Ehang carries an automatic emergency parachute.

This was set for July but clearly the decline wasn’t me.

And then there’s Uber Elevate

Though Uber is not to our knowledge working on the Dubai drone taxi project, its plans for its Uber Elevate drone taxi project are relevant. As you can see from Uber’s research study below, it’s been analyzing a number of players in the sector, and the Velocopter and the Ehang are chief amonth them.

Uber’s goal: Fifty air taxis by 2023.

The stated goal is four passengers in a flying version of the UberX car. Scroll below to find the Uber Elevate research paper the company released last year. It digs deeply into the Ehang and the Volocopter as well as some of the policy and traffic management challenges that lie ahead.

What’s next?
There are enormous challenges ahead for the use of autonomous air taxis. And everything will be fine when there are just a few oddball taxis out there.
But isn’t it easy to imagine a not-too-distant future where most people drive autonomous flying car drones. They will probably have to fly beneath helicopter level and certainly below plane level. Will they work at a single level skyway or will they be layered at different levels. Even traveling at 60mph there are difficulties regarding obstacle avoidance together for both buildings and other sky taxis.
I’ll take a closer look at the ramifications of air taxis and flying cars next time. Stay tuned.

For RobotRepublic in Sheffield, UK, I’m Noel Sharkey.

p.s. Here is the full flying car market research report that Uber released late last summer:

Uber Elevate/Flying Cars Paper by Gina Smith on Scribd