Passenger drones: Moving from ride hailing to flight hailing

       By Dan Odido

Ride hailing currently: Image of an Uber taxi
Uber taxi in Moscow. Ride hailing drivers were on strike in Nairobi
Ride hailing taxi drivers on strike

Ride hailing companies had a bad week.  Their drivers were on the streets and not in their cabs. They were on strike demanding an increase of their cut of the earnings. The premier ride hailing company Uber, for example, pockets 25 percent of their earnings, and leaves them the balance to meet all the operating and other expenses. Drivers were also protesting the decision by the ride hailing company to limit their working hours by logging them off the app after twelve hours of continuous work. This is a safety measure that was introduced so as to combat driver fatigue when it was reported that drivers were overworking themselves to fatigue and causing accidents. Passengers who have got accustomed to this mode of transportation are now in a lurch.

See: Taxi app drivers down tools over low wages

See: Online taxi strike enters day three in Nairobi

Future of ride hailing

What is the future of ride hailing? Will the mother companies eventually run their own fleets and remove the drivers from the equation? Uber is already experimenting with self-driving (also called ‘autonomous’) cars. On top of all this, they are also experimenting with pilotless aircraft. An article that appeared in the Business Daily Africa in early March reported that Uber was one of the companies that had applied to the aviation regulator, Kenya Civil Aviation Authority KCAA for a permit to test their drones. This followed the drafting of the remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) regulations. It was reported that Uber was working on passenger carrying drones that were to be operated as air taxis.

See: Facebook and Uber want to operate drones in Kenya

See: Nairobi skies to have Uber flying taxi

See also: Uber denies claim they want to fly drones in Kenya

But Uber does not manufacture drones. Is the company changing its business? The model fronted by Uber is to utilise the pilotless aircraft in much the same way that it intends to operate its autonomous ride-sharing road vehicles. Uber Elevate is the company’s light-aircraft ride sharing project. Uber is partnering with several companies for the manufacture of the aircraft: Flight Sciences, Pipistrel Aircraft, Embraer, Mooney and Bell among others. It has also brought in NASA to assist in developing software for air traffic management. NASA has wide experience in air traffic management.

Air taxis are now the rage

Talk of the impending introduction of drone-based air taxis is currently all the rage. It has sucked in several start ups as well as some major aviation players and even car manufacturers. Several companies are working on some form of urban air mobility. These innovations are geared towards solving problems of traffic congestion in large cities.

Congestion in road transportation is not a new phenomenon. It is a feature of all large modern cities. Many industrialised countries attempted to evade congested roads by going underground through the implementation of subway trains. Underground trains are now very popular, with the Shanghai subway carrying about 10 million passengers in a day. Air taxis take the opposite direction, and attempt to solve the problems of ordinary commuting by resorting to the air instead. The mythical flying carpet from oriental tales was reputed to be able to transport its passengers in the twinkling of an eye. Los Angeles estimates that use of an air taxi will cut an eighty minute commute by car to four minutes by a flying taxi. Use of air taxis will obviously allow one to buy back several minutes from his life!

Uber is developing several air taxi concepts. It expects to start flying air taxis in Texas by 2023. It also intends to develop air taxi services for Los Angeles in time for the city’s 2028 Olympics.

Race for the prize

Uber are not the only ones interested in air taxis. Several companies are racing to launch the first successful passenger carrying drone. Chinese drone manufacturer Ehang have made the most significant progress after the testing its air taxi in Dubai. The public flight of the Ehang unmanned passenger carrier was revolutionary. Ehang have now carried over 40 passengers and conducted thousands of unmanned test flights including a vertical climb to nearly 1,000 feet.

Ride hailing in future: Image of a Ehang 184 electric passenger drone
Ehang 184 Passenger drone

Other companies are also interested. Airbus has successfully tested an electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) autonomous drone, Vahana. The German Volocopter is an air taxi designed for two people. It features a ballistic parachute in case of catastrophic failure. They have also been tested in Dubai. The Volocopter will be compatible with a smartphone app, whereby you order one and have it pick you up like an Uber service. Munich-based Lilium is building a two-seater VTOL that it expects to be operational by 2025. Car manufacturers have not been left behind. Audi has designed a vehicle “for horizontal and vertical mobility”. Toyota has filed patents in VTOL control systems.

Dubai is actively seeking to be the pioneer in air taxi networks. It has the support of Dubai Road and Transport Authority that is advancing the VTOL network. Uber, Volocopter and eHang all have a presence in Dubai.

Autonomous passenger transportation is a big leap even by the standards of the burgeoning drone industry. This technology has now moved from technical design to the “real” world.

Transition from ride hailing: How an air taxi operates

So how does such a taxi work? What does it take to fly in such a taxi? Does one need a pilot’s license? Essentially you enter the vehicle, type in your destination (or use other means of input) and off you fly. Ehang 184 allows the passenger to mark his destination on an interactive map and the vehicle creates and executes a flight plan. Welcome to the brave new world! The era of the Flying Carpet has finally arrived….

Many of the proposed designs will initially have a “safety pilot” to take over in case of technology malfunction. In reality this is mainly to reassure passengers. Others will feature safety features like parachutes. How about navigation? Will there be crashes/collisions in the air? Different approaches may eventually be used.

These new generation air taxis are also variously called flying cars, roadable aircraft, vertical take-off and landing (VTOLs) and personal air vehicles. The air taxis are a result of a new convergence of technologies.

A lot of technological developments have made this possible. First is the way in which the aircraft are powered. There is a move towards electric-powered aircraft through the use of batteries. Another is developments in control of aircraft and global navigation satellite systems. Vertical Take-off and Landing aircraft (VTOL) have also been given new breath of life by air taxis.

Challenges of development of the new technology

The development of this new industry will have several ramifications. What will be the ownership structure of the autonomous taxis? Will there be limitations on foreign ownership? If allowed in Kenya, will they operate under drone laws or those governing passenger aircraft? What about freedoms of the air: will rules governing cabotage apply to foreign owned companies flying the passenger drones locally?  Uber has already run into headwinds in several countries with its business model. How about safety? Who will take responsibility in case of accidents? We should learn from the March accident in which Uber’s driverless car fatally struck a pedestrian in Arizona, USA despite having a safety driver. Other questions may involve the local intellectual property resulting from the tests.

As the cabinet secretary for transport meets the striking ride-hailing taxi drivers, he may want to ponder on the challenges that Uber will eventually throw to his laps: What will happen when Uber removes the driver from the cab and the pilot from the aircraft, and still wants to transport passengers?

Air taxis will also be disruptive to commercial air transportation. If passengers accept to be flown by pilotless machines, then this will open the floodgates for a clamour to be allowed to apply the same technology in airlines. Low cost carriers have been pushing to be allowed to use only one pilot on their flights. Already there are proposals to use a single human ground pilot to supervise several single-pilot airliners. This could eventually lead to fully unmanned airliners.

Guinea pigs or partners in innovation?

So where are we in all this? Are we merely being used as a test bed so as to highlight any dangers, before the technologies are certified as safe in the developed world? Real world testing of new technology is crucial so as to guarantee safety.

Uber opened us to the possibility of ride hailing. It is now pointing us towards flight hailing. We should extract the maximum benefits from this technology. If we let the opportunity for becoming early adopter of this technology to slip away then Shakespeare’s words may well apply to us as a nation: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, taken at the flood leads to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures”

The writer is a lecturer. He heads the Department of Flying Studies in the School of Aerospace Sciences of Moi University. Views expressed in this article are his own. . Twitter: @aerospaceKenya

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