Things are moving incredibly quickly all of a sudden. With very little in the way of real transportation advancement for decades, heck we even moved backwards (though that may also be changing) when it came to lighter than air and supersonic travel, suddenly we have things like the Hyperloop and a ton of Flying Car startups. One of the most interesting was a demo from CES last year showcasing the potential for a human carrying Drone. Most thought it was a PR stunt, then later they announced trials in Nevada, and last week they announced they would be in production in Dubai by the end of the year. Going from a joke in 2016 to production in 2017 is incredible, particularly given how long we’ve been working on flying cars and how little real progress we have made.
There are a couple really big problems that will likely make this more of a tourist attraction than a real solution for some time, but given the speed at which we are advancing, a lot of us could be flying to work, or tunneling to work, by this time next decade.
Let’s talk advancement and human carrying drones.
I grew up, I imagine, like a lot of you may have— dreaming of someday being able to fly to school or work. Apparently, so did my parents and their parents; yet, after three generations of trying, there is still no viable flying car solution in the market. The reasons are typically tied to being unable to handle the traffic, the expense of a viable solution, the skills needed, and the risk of having a lot of flying cars falling out of the sky due to pilot error or maintenance issues.
Currently, Air Traffic Controllers have problems managing the relatively small number of private planes flying today, and the idea of jumping that number by 1,000x or more just doesn’t seem reasonable. But we accidentally solved that problem with autonomous cars.
What Autonomous Cars gave us was a solution for two of these problems. One is that anything that is smart enough to drive on the road by itself can certainly fly. Plus, autonomous cars are expected to be cooperative and collaborative, so not only do you not have to teach people to drive them, you don’t need some kind of Air Traffic Control solution (you may need some central computer oversight just to deal with weather, large scale issues like too many cars entering an airspace at once, or criminal activity).
We also have made things more reliable, and with size reductions we can make them far more redundant so that catastrophic failures are even more infrequent than they are on current generation planes, particularly when you use electric motors. And, given the cost of these motors and computerized systems are dropping rapidly, even the cost of the solution is approaching affordability.
The remaining problem issues are regulation and power storage. You see, while we can certainly build electric motors strong enough and redundant enough to carry people safely, the weak link is the battery which not only lacks the energy density of gasoline but takes a relatively long time to charge, offsetting what would otherwise be impressively fast travel times.
Now, there are two solutions that can be applied to batteries. One is wireless charging, which has been advancing impressively but still requires relatively close proximity (feet not miles). It would be ideal if you could just project power to the vehicle, but power loss after a few feet makes that kind of a solution non-viable. This gives an advantage to cars because you could put the power into roads and give cars nearly unlimited power (granted, at a very high infrastructure cost), something you can’t do for flying vehicles at the moment. (An interesting idea might be to string power over train tracks and create charging corridors, which would create a rather stunning visual with an old train below and a line of charging flying vehicles flying overhead between cities.)
The other way is to provide fast battery swapping systems like the ones that have been developed for the Tesla cars but not yet deployed. The drone gets low, lands, the battery is automatically swapped, and in five minutes or less you are on your way. You could put them on the tops of buildings, making them relatively hard to damage by vandals.
Neither of these solutions are anywhere close to implementation, assuring the first deployments will be more showcases than actual solutions.
Wrapping Up: Change is in the Wind
This is only one of the amazing things that we are seeing rush to market at the moment, suggesting that there is only one thing we can be sure of over the next decade or so—that the world will be rapidly changing. I’m particularly fascinated with these human carrying drones because the technology can be applied to every form of transportation and emerging forms of robotics, showcasing a future of autonomous machines that will alter how we live and what we do. I don’t think we are ready for this massive level of change, and that may be the biggest problem we have yet to deal with.