It’s not uncommon for lofty ideas to float around the aviation industry. Theories that work perfectly in principle often fail to come to fruition, as the world’s finest inventors temper their enthusiasm with the realities of large companies needing to cater for the current demands of customers, not future aspirations. So, it would be understandable to raise an eyebrow at the suggestion that a flying taxi is already very much in the works.
Except for one thing. This is all happening in Dubai.
If there’s one thing Dubai is known for, it’s extravagance. No expense is spared and no limitation is placed on anything to come out of a region which gave us the world’s first 7-star hotel and recently bestowed gifts including tiger fur robes and chiffon dresses to President Trump.
With this in mind, it will come as no surprise to see that Dubai is already pushing out the boat to make flying taxis - a common feature of futuristic visions in film and television - an imminent reality. In fact, the prototype has already enjoyed its inaugural flight.
First test flight
In September of this year the first successful flight of a potential flying taxi took place in Dubai. Drone company Volocopter was the firm responsible for building it, and it was revealed in a ceremony which was arranged for Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed. Expectations will have been high, and thankfully the flight was successful, leading to speculation that in the not too distant future we may see a new means of travel in Dubai.
The drone itself seats two individuals, meaning two passengers can ride at a time as there is no need for a human pilot to be on board. The 18-rotor vehicle ran for five minutes at a height of 200m, though the finished product should be able to fly for up to 30 minutes per flight. Aesthetically, the vehicle is ultra-modern, a helicopter-esque design with an intimate seating which minimizes the space the taxi takes up and make it much more feasible to land in tighter spaces, which is integral to the nature of a flying taxi.
Whilst the flight was indeed a success and marked the potential future of commercial taxi travel in Dubai, it is far from a sure thing. And not just in terms of the concept as a whole. More to the point, Volocopter may have been the one to fly Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed around recently, but there are plenty more suitors waiting in the wings.
Uber look to join the market
Coming from all across Europe and the US, more than a dozen other companies are vying for the rights to make their footprint on the potential industry. They are far from unknown, too - think Airbus, Kitty Hawk, and perhaps significantly Uber, who currently dominate the regular taxi market with their groundbreaking app which makes it simple to order a cab from anywhere in minutes using amateur drivers.
So, with Uber in mind as a successful template, how might we expect these flying taxis to work? Managing Director at Volocopter Florian Reuter thinks he may have the answer.
“Implementation would see you using your smartphone, having an app and ordering a Volocopter to the next voloport near you,” said Mr Reuter. “The volocopter would come and autonomously pick you up and take you to your destination.
“It already is capable of flying based on GPS tracks today and we will implement full sense capability, also dealing with unknown obstacles on the way.”
The demonstration of its inaugural flight drew a round of applause from Sheik Hamdan bin Mohammed’s attending entourage, but a more widely accessible display at the Dubai World Trade Centre allowed others to take a look up close and personal. It passed the test, with reports widely favorable of the design. But how would it work in real life?
In line with regulation
Shrewdly, the flying taxi has been designed in partnership with the Road and Transport Authority. This has long been a big question mark in Western markets, where the debate rages on not just about how flying taxis can be created in general, but how they could be incorporated into the real world in terms of regulation and practicality. Here, it appears the design has been made with regulation in mind from the ground up, so to speak. This makes the realism of the project that much greater and more achievable, making it easy to see why the test flight has garnered so much attention.
Attention from the Sheikh himself was in no short supply, as he lavished praise on the potential of the product.
“After the remarkable success of the first driverless metro in the region, we are glad to witness today the test flight of the Autonomous Air Taxi,” said Sheikh Hamdan. “This is another testament to our commitment to driving positive change. We are constantly exploring opportunities to serve the community and advance the prosperity and happiness of society.
“Encouraging innovation and adopting the latest technologies contribute not only to the country’s development but also build bridges into the future,” he concluded.
The UAE is no stranger to cutting-edge developments, and flying taxis are not the only thing on their agenda. Other huge aviation ambitions include flying an unmanned probe to Mars as soon as 2021, despite never having ventured into space at any point in history, and they have already demonstrated their ability to break new ground and forge industry-defying paths with the introduction of both a driverless metro and - would you believe it - prototypes of robotic police officers.
No matter how ambitious the project, you can guarantee that the decision-makers in Dubai and the UAE will take it seriously. Write off flying taxis at your peril.