“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” Dr Emmett Brown told Marty McFly as they prepared to blast into the year 2015 in the film Back to the Future. Perhaps that destination in time would have been more appropriately set for July 2017, when Dubai says it will be launching the world’s first pilotless, flying taxi service.
In February the Dubai authorities announced a plan to employ drones to complete short passenger trips. The company making the drones is a Chinese one, called Ehang.
Ehang unveiled its Ehang 184 passenger drone at the CES tech show in Las Vegas last January as the world’s first electric, self-piloted drone, claiming it had already completed 100 passenger-laden test flights.
The drone carries a single passenger weighing up to 100kg, and has room for a small suitcase. Fully charged, it can travel up to 50km per hour, to an altitude of 3.5km and for a duration of 30 minutes – meaning it is viable only for journeys within cities as opposed to between them. One feature of Ehang 184 that might cause some concern is, of course, that it has no pilot. Passengers use a tablet inside the “cockpit” to enter their destination and the drone does the rest. The drone also has no manual override but is designed to land in the closest “safe location” in the event of any problems.
However, tech portal The Verge is “extremely sceptical” that the idea will ever get off the ground, noting that Dubai has a history of announcing outlandish tech partnerships – such as jetpacks for fire-fighters tackling skyscraper blazes. It also believes the Ehang 184 is simply a publicity gimmick for the company’s other commercial drones. Time will tell.