Dubai: Escaping the traffic jam by drones

Can’t get through, can’t go around, so why not go over the traffic in a drone? The old fantastical vision of the future looks to become reality in Dubai before the year is out. The desert metropolis wants to be the first city on Earth to send its commuters sky high.

Volocopter 2X is the name given to this superlight 160 kilogram flying machine. Investors include giants such as Daimler. Photo: Volocopter

Volocopter 2X is the name given to this superlight 160 kilogram flying machine. Investors include giants such as Daimler. Photo: Volocopter

It’s the age-old dream – launching into the sky in a flying car to sail past the sea of red tail-lights ahead. And there is a good chance that it will finally be a dream come true, albeit substituting the romanticized folding-winged car for an autonomous maxi-sized drone. Dozens of aviation manufacturers are currently toiling away on such projects to provide commuters with an alternative to the gridlock of big city traffic. Especially privileged residents of Brazilian capital São Paulo have been enjoying the precursor to this development for years, as helipads on high-rises and skyscrapers allow over 400 helicopters to make quick journeys over the chronically congested streets of the South American megacity. However, helicopters with combustion engines are complex and expensive aircraft, and unsuitable for the air-taxi services of the future.

Test mode with the drones will start at the end of the year

Startups and multinationals including Airbus, Google and Uber believe electric-­powered flying machines provide the key to these lofty aspirations for urban mobility. Such aircraft would deliver their passengers or payloads autonomously to a chosen destination. The specialist term for these pilotless aircraft is ‘Unmanned Aerial Systems’ (UAS), colloquially referred to as ‘drones.’ There is a palpable gold-rush atmosphere in the industry, with companies floating creative ideas and ingenious solutions to secure themselves a slice of the multi-­billion-dollar pie. European aerospace giant Airbus and design workshop Italdesign have developed a mobility concept that unifies autonomous driving and flying – the Pop Up. It is projected to become reality within a decade. On solid ground, Pop Up is an electric car. By requesting a quadcopter to dock with the car via the Pop Up app, however, it is transformed into a flying drone. Users require neither a pilot’s nor driver’s license.

The Dubai Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) is fueling hopes for a rapid implementation of these new technologies. Testing with the Chinese drone Ehang 184 had been planned to commence as early as this summer, but now it seems that test operations will begin towards the end of the year. Joining the Ehang 184 in the skies above Dubai will be the futuristic ­Volocopter 2X aircraft from Karlsruhe.

In-app flight bookings

It’s a simple concept: the passenger requests a drone via the app, and enters their desired destination. The next available drone informs the user of its arrival time and the flight plan, also in the app. The drone collects the passenger and transports them to their destination. While the Ehang drone is currently only able to carry a single passenger and their bag – up to a maximum weight of 100 kilograms – this is just a starting point. During testing in Dubai, there will be predetermined take-off and landing locations along the largest thoroughfares. Further, more conveniently located air-taxi stands may be added later. Both of these plus-sized drones soar through the skies powered by electric motors, and are also VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) capable. This allows them to use the tight spaces of the inner city more effectively. The Ehang 184 has eight rotors, the Volocopter 2X a staggering 18. This provides added safety – should a rotor malfunction, the performance loss is a mere 12.5 percent, or only 5.5 percent with 18 rotors. Such reliability is essential for an autonomously operated transport system to gain the public traction that it requires. This fact is not lost on the manufacturers. Accordingly, the flying taxis are programmed to immediately seek the next safe landing spot in case of a technical issue.

Some drones even feature a ballistic parachute system, which quickly activates in case of emergency, allowing the drone to float gently back to earth. Full-electric flight still quickly reaches the limits of its capabilities, as the power density of modern batteries does not allow for long flights. While this is the case, the batteries that will be used in the Ehang 184 in Dubai still permit flying time of half an hour, and a range of approximately 50 kilometers. Meteorological influences such as high temperatures and strong headwinds also have considerable effect on flying performance. Another point to consider is the relatively long recharging cycle of current-day batteries. The Chinese manufacturer projects the rapid charging cycle could charge the battery in an hour, whereas a regular charge cycle – following a maximum-duration flight – would last two hours. As a result, other manufacturers have entered the fray with their own hybrid drive concepts, such as the Workhorse Group, whose SureFly uses a combustion engine to generate the electricity required to power its eight rotors, mounted on four arms. The SureFly prototype is expected to make its maiden flight before the end of 2017.

The Lilium Jet will take off and land vertically, in order to better utilize the tight spaces associated with city living. Photo: Lilium

The Lilium Jet will take off and land vertically, in order to better utilize the tight spaces associated with city living. Photo: Lilium

Bavarian aviation start-up Lilium also places an emphasis on electric flight and VTOL capabilities. Their two-seater Lilium Jet drone is projected to set new benchmarks with its forecast cruising speed of 300 km/h and a range of 300 kilometers. “We are building the first fully-electric powered jet capable of vertical take-off and landing,” says ­Lilium Founder Daniel Wiegand. The project receives no public funding, and is completely reliant on private investors – as are most projects in this sector. In April, Lilium saw its prototype take to the skies for the first time at the Mindelheim-Mattsies airstrip. Thrust is generated by 36 enclosed propellers, arranged in twelve pods of three along the tail edges of the wings. For take-off, these swing to point downwards, while in flight they return to a more horizontal position. Lilium intends its first manned flight as early as 2019, and 2025 is set to see the launch of its air-taxi service. Flight prices shouldn’t be any more expensive than the equivalent taxi ride for a comparable route.

Drones could soon play a role in urban mobility, however, legal frameworks have yet to be put in place. This issue has been recognized by the ­European Aviation Safety Agency EASA and US Federal Aviation Administration FAA, and both are now working to lay the foundations for the safe operation of such flying apparatus. The idea of earlier flying car manufacturers – a car that could just fold out its wings to soar above the traffic below – is being reinterpreted and brought up to date.

Interview: Three Questions for Markus Pascual-König

Markus Pascual-König, Consultant and Trainer for the aviation safety department at DEKRA Aviation Services. Photo: Martin Joppen Photographie GmbH

Markus Pascual-König, Consultant and Trainer for the aviation safety department at DEKRA Aviation Services. Photo: Martin Joppen Photographie GmbH

Companies developing self-flying drones for air-taxi and courier services are spreading somewhat of a gold-rush atmosphere. Do you believe that such flying machines will soon be widespread in Germany?

Pascual-König: There is currently no legal framework to govern the usage of large drones and autonomous flight in Europe. Regulatory requirements need to be put in place before this can become a reality.

Can unmanned flying machines really ever safely operate in and share our airspaces?

Pascual-König: There are a lot of questions that need answering in this regard. We certainly need to straighten out the conflict between conventional aircraft and autonomous drone flights. This is more than just answering questions of a technical nature, such as what happens if a drone suffers a flyaway, crash or aerial collision. Operator training and education will also play a decisive role. The fact is that autonomous drone flights will come, albeit under supervision, by air traffic control for example.

What role can DEKRA Aviation ­Services play here?

Pascual-König: We can use our expertise to enrich education and training. We’re at the forefront in this regard. DEKRA Aviation Services will open a certified training center for drone operators in coming weeks, initially for small UAVs with a maximum weight of 25 kilograms. DEKRA Aviation Services can also make a valuable contribution to safe drone operation through safety management, compliance management and monitoring.

Author: Volker K. Thomalla