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Autonomous Vehicles Take to the Air!

QIS Quick Take: the age of the flying car is upon us—with nobody in the driver’s seat.

The flying car, a staple science-fiction image for nearly a hundred years, is about to become a reality—but not the way we imagined it. The idea of an individual driver zipping around the skies in a convertible with wings is not going to happen. For one thing, the average motorist is not going to go through weeks of classroom instruction and 40 hours of flight time to get a private pilot license. Also, these vehicles will be far too expensive for individual consumer ownership.

The real future of the flying car will belong to fully automated, computer-controlled passenger drones, and that future is already almost upon us. In the fall of 2016, Israel-based Urban Aeronautics, which has been working for the past 15 years on an autonomous passenger drone named the Cormorant, performed its first autonomous test flight. Two months later, a Chinese company called Ehang released video footage showing its Ehang 184 undergoing unmanned test flights.

As with any brand-new technology, there are some obstacles to be overcome. One has to do with battery life. The Ehang 184 can fly at altitudes up to 11,500 feet and at speeds of over 60 mph—but for only 23 minutes. Similar limitations affect the Cormorant, and indeed all current vehicles of this type. Given the way battery technology is improving, however, it seems likely that these difficulties will be overcome.

A more challenging obstacle, at least in the United States, may be the Federal Aviation Administration. Current regulations stipulate that unmanned aircraft weigh less than 55 pounds, attain a maximum altitude of 400 feet, and operate within the visual line of sight of a remote pilot. How rapidly the FAA would be willing to adapt itself to the widespread use of autonomous passenger drones is an open question.

Elsewhere, models for the regulated, legally sanctioned use of drones for commercial purposes are coming into existence. In the Netherlands, Delft Area Robotics B.V. (DAR) has announced plans to deploy docking stations throughout the Delft region that will support a network of autonomous drones, in the same way that cell towers provide coverage for telephones. The docking stations will contain sensors that monitor the weather and flying conditions for drones before they begin flights, as well as drones’ diagnostics once they are in the air.

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