Dubai tests drone taxi service. Credit: Government of Dubai.
Dubai has conducted its first test of a drone taxi service that it hopes will become a viable transportation system in the city, under an ambitious plan by the United Arab Emirates city to lead the Arab world in innovation.
Dubai has big ambitions for becoming a smart city, with drones and robots central to its plans.
The two-seater, 18-rotor unmanned vehicle took off for a five-minute flight above a strip of sand on the Gulf coast, near Jumeirah Beach Park. The flight was watched by Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed. Attired in crisp white robes and headdresses, Sheikh Hamdan and his entourage clapped approvingly from a nearby viewing deck as the craft alighted.
“Encouraging innovation and adopting the latest technologies contributes not only to the country’s development but also builds bridges into the future,” Sheikh Hamdan said in a statement.
Meant to fly without remote control guidance and with a maximum flight duration of 30 minutes, it comes with plenty of fail-safes in case of trouble: back-up batteries, rotors and, for a worst-case scenario, a couple of parachutes.
Source: Government of Dubai
The drone was designed by German firm Volocopter and the firm said it hopes to have the taxis up and running within five years. Volocopter is in a race with more than a dozen well-funded European and U.S firms, each with its own science fiction-inspired vision for creating a new form of urban transport that is a cross between a driverless electric car and a short-haul, vertical takeoff-and-landing aircraft.
These include aerospace giant Airbus, which aims to put a self-piloting taxi in the air by 2020; Kitty Hawk, a company backed by Google co-founder Larry Page; and Uber, which is working with partners on its own flying taxi strategy.
The drone had previously been tested in April. Rival Chinese firm eHang was supposed to be the first to launch a fleet of flying taxis in the city but its plans appear to have been delayed.
Dubai has positioned itself to become the smartest city in the world with ambitions to have self-driving vehicles account for a quarter of journeys made by 2030.
Source: Government of Dubai
“Implementation would see you using your smartphone, having an app, and ordering a Volocopter to the next Voloport near you,” said chief executive Florian 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’ll implement full sense capability, also dealing with unknown obstacles on the way,” he added, saying developers aimed to initiate the taxis within five years.
Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist and robotics expert at Sheffield University, said of the drone plans: “The big challenge will be dynamic obstacle avoidance of other taxis, buildings, birds and delivery drones.
“The skies over Dubai could become uncomfortably crowded very quickly. The ground level of the city could become a dark place of intrigue and mystery like Blade Runner.”
The UAE has sought to distinguish itself in a region mired in war and strife as a high-tech, forward-looking society. It plans to send an unmanned probe to Mars by 2021, the Arab world’s first mission to space, and Dubai has in many ways led their showy march into the future by introducing the region’s first driverless metro and robot policemen prototypes.
“The Autonomous Air Taxis has a variety of unique features that include top security and safety standards, and multiple redundancies in all critical components such as propellers, motors, power source, electronics and flight controls,” says HE Mattar Al Tayer, Director-General and Chairman of the Board of Executive Directors of Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority.
“It’s also fitted with optional emergency parachutes, nine independent battery systems, and a battery quick-charge and plug-in system, which takes two hours to reach full charge in the prototype version, a time that will be significantly reduced in the production version.”
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