The likely introduction of driverless, autonomous “taxi-drones” in major cities may have implications for the military

An EHang-184 "drone-taxi" Picture credit EHang

An EHang 184 taxi drone
Picture credit: EHang

Officials in the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates have announced their intention to have driverless, automated flying taxis operating over the city by July this year. These so-called “passenger drones” will be capable of carrying a single rider with one piece of luggage, up to a maximum weight of 100 kg.

The preferred vehicle is the Chinese-built EHang 184 autonomous drone, which can fly for about 30 minutes at 80 kph on a single battery charge. Test flights of the EHang 184 have already been conducted over Dubai and its 2.7 million inhabitants; and more than 100 hours of trials – including some with a human onboard – have been conducted at EHang’s headquarters near Guangzhou.

According to the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority, passengers will buckle in and tap their destination on a touch-screen, after which their drone will takeoff and be flown by autopilot, while being monitored via a command centre. Communication between the command centre and its taxi-drones is encrypted, and each drone has its own key.

During “extreme” weather, the command centre will prohibit takeoff. And should an in-flight malfunction occur, the drone is equipped with “failsafe multiple backup” technology that, it is said, will “immediately land a vehicle in the nearest possible area to ensure safety”.

It is not clear from the manufacturer’s press releases precisely what “failsafe multiple backup” means. The manufacturers do, however, say that up to four of the eight rotors could stop and the vehicle would still be able to land safely. There will be no provision for the passenger to take control of the drone.

There are three key issues here: regulation and safety; technology; and popular acceptance.

The question of how and to what extent to regulate the rapidly growing number of drones of all shapes and sizes has been perhaps the most troublesome issue faced by aviation authorities in democracies during the past decade. Striking the right balance between public safety and an individual’s right to own and operate drones has been challenging. But no such challenge exists in Dubai, which is an absolute monarchy, and which perhaps partly explains why officials there have been able to press ahead so quickly with this revolutionary transport system.

Most specialist commentators seem comfortable with the technology which, consistent with the general trend in computing, communications, composite materials, robotics, battery technology and the like, is almost certain to become even better and cheaper. Furthermore, while caution must be exercised in translating experiences from land-based transport systems to air-based systems, the success of fully automated, complex railway networks cannot be ignored. The Dubai Metro, for example, has been operating a two-line system 75 km long and with 49 stations since 2009, largely without incident.

Public acceptance could provide the biggest hurdle. Yet any resistance might be more emotional than rational, noting that the annual General Aviation (light aircraft) accident rate in Australia between 2005 and 2014 averaged 116, with a high of 149 accidents in 2014, and that many GA operations take place from airports inside large urban areas. An airborne taxi service that averaged an accident every three days would be unlikely to stay in business very long.

From the military perspective, the story here seems to be not so much one of driverless, autonomous flying taxis, but of the inevitable rise of these kinds of technologies, and what that might mean, if anything, for concepts of operations, force structures, and recruitment policies.