How drones and air taxis could transform our skies | FT

From drone deliveries to helicopter taxis, the low-fly economy is on the brink of changing our skies forever. But how will we prevent chaos above our heads? The FT’s San Francisco correspondent Patrick McGee meets the engineers, pilots, business people and regulators who will shape the skyline. See if you get the FT for free as a student ( or start a £1 trial:

A glimpse into the future sky buggies for everyone simple controls are an important feature now manipulate a lever release a break and you’re off always dreamed of personal flying machines but the post-war enthusiasm hasn’t matched the reality the wright brothers made the world’s first powered flight way back in 1903 but since then our skyscapes really haven’t

Changed all that much indeed the sky right now is clear and blue partly because coronavirus is keeping the planes out of the skies but mostly because they’re as empty as they’ve always been but by 2025 2030 we may just have dozens if not hundreds if not indeed thousands of flying objects in the sky and we really need sophisticated systems to understand how

They’re being used where they’re being used and to really ensure that this system is safe and secure reliable transparent and you can imagine some of the economic benefits and a lot of companies have a big stake in this hey doc you better back up we don’t have enough road to get up to 88 roads where we’re going we don’t need roads a host of visionaries are

Betting that by the end of this decade this empty space will be filled we’ll have unmanned drone deliveries flying taxis hoverbikes and all manner of gravity-defying machines we haven’t even trumped up yet if anything the outbreak just goes to show how important those kind of unmanned deliveries could be it sounds like sci-fi but so did the idea of a pandemic

Just before the virus locked down countries around the world i visited the city of angels i wanted to meet the people who believe that harnessing the skies is an economic necessity one that can transform cities speed up logistics and even save lives air traffic control today is analog and totally manual so it’s up to air traffic controllers to tell pilots where

To go startup airmap is working with governments to create an unmanned traffic management system promising a completely automated system to bring order to the skies that means digital invisible highways capable of guiding thousands of crash-free journeys the unmanned aircraft traffic management system will allow for drones that have not yet taken off to know

The other trajectories of the other drones that are flying around so immediately prior to takeoff a drone can simply tell the unmanned traffic management system where it wants to go and the system provides a safe and efficient route that is deconflicted from all previously planned trajectories but over time the more efficient and optimal way for these aircraft

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To navigate will be on planned but random routes since google launched its self-driving car project in 2009 venture capital has flowed into dozens of autonomous car projects but mark grodin believes aerial vehicles are much better place to take on the problem of traffic congestion his company skyrise envisions autonomous helicopter taxis the ground is so much

More laden with obstacles it’s very rich with obstacles and and the biggest problem for autonomous cars is deconflicting that space because you have to identify a bicycle versus a pedestrian and then make an intelligent decision based upon that unfortunately for us you can’t ride your bicycle into the sky and so there’s not a lot going on up there and that’s

Actually a much better application of today’s technologies than automating and making autonomous ground vehicles and it’s a much stronger value proposition if achieved flying taxis are usually based on electric vertical takeoff there are already 68 prototype aerial vehicles in development according to transport up backed by the likes of aston martin hyundai and

Daimler skyrise plans to work with these companies but it has already demonstrated technology that allows present-day helicopters to fly autonomously and operate like ride hailing companies mr grodin thinks that he can get to market more quickly than rivals by starting with standard helicopters that have already been approved by the faa yeah it may sound a little

Bit utopian but it is entirely possible with technology that already exists today so we don’t need new battery technology we don’t need anything that defies the laws of physics and we don’t need any new breakthrough discovery realizing unity economics are at parity even better than uberx actually at parity with the commuter car according to the irs which is 53

Cents per passenger mile is possible with today’s technologies the pace of technological change has been rapid when dan burton was in the u.s marine corps in the early 2000s a drone cost millions of dollars and took dozens of people to operate ten years later an infantryman without a college education could launch one out of his backpack after witnessing this

Development mr burton founded dronebase a company that now operates a 60 000 strong pilot network to carry out commercial applications so what i witnessed was really basically the democratization of the air where many smaller and smaller units could get access to the air get data and imagery from the air and make a better faster decision based on that data and

Imagery and they’re getting closer to the iphone level at this point i know in the marine corps at least they want every squad which is 15 marines to have a drone and the assistant squad leader their sub their kind of secondary job is to be uh the drone operator landing pads right on skyscrapers and whatnot ben marcus and cyrus aguerry childhood best friends who

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Became pilots together and then founded airmap are taking us on a helicopter tour over la to show how they imagine the future of the skies pressures and temperatures are now all in the green that’s good that’s good how many helicopters are in the air on a daily basis in los angeles well i can tell you like right now in this area there’s probably four helicopters

That are flying as we speak there’s four that landed in this west la certain area what are you sort of envisioning 2025 2030 so we see an unconstrained demand for urban aerial mobility that could be tens of thousands of simultaneous flights here in los angeles alone about 400 000 people commute an hour and a half each way to work every day so it’s a lot of people

Who could really benefit from urban aerial mobility we filmed this during rush hour and like i said it was before the lockdown which dramatically reduced travel and commuting indeed it’s hard to imagine what travel will look like in post-corona landscape but personal transportation could prove more appealing to those more wary of buses and trains some may prefer

To cut out unnecessary journeys making more use of the video conferencing we’ve all become so used to there’s a bunch of helicopters flying around here that we haven’t seen and so you know spotting air traffic visually isn’t the easiest thing to do and it doesn’t scale to thousands of aircraft simultaneously flying over a city like los angeles so this is one of

The core things that we need to overcome in a more modern digital automated airspace management system first step is what the faa recently released in a notice of proposed rulemaking called remote identification so all of these aircraft whether they are manned or unmanned need to be in a system that exchanges information about their position and the identity of

Their operators that’s critically important in order for us to be able to detect and avoid one another and also to provide a measure of accountability that will lead to public acceptance by the general public so what’s holding the industry back is not technology but regulations countries like rwanda and ghana had already opened up their airspace to sell flying

Drones that deliver blood and medicine to remote hospitals us-based startup zipline is now flying coven-19 samples from remote areas to get tested in city laboratories in the u.s the federal aviation administration has brought authority governing the skies at the moment faa regulations restrict pilots from flying drones directly over people or beyond their line

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Of sight the system mr marcus mentioned remote id is akin to having digital license plates to identify drones in the sky this could open up cities to drone deliveries or we could see the use of drone-in-a-box technology where self-flying aircraft deploy automatically on surveillance trips for example to monitor progress at a construction site a drone that sits

In a self-contained box would take off at a particular hour videotape its journey and then land back in the box where it uploads data to the cloud and recharges before its next journey however when the faa proposes from oid rules it caused an uproar the proposal calls for almost all drones to be registered for a fee and be equipped with both radio and internet

Connectivity to communicate the location of the drone and the pilot if a pilot’s location cannot be broadcast he or she will be limited to flying in a 400 foot radius consumer and model airplane enthusiasts said this would invade their privacy and could even kill their hobby while smaller businesses said it was unworkable skylatter provides drones for 3d modeling

Mapping and building inspection so we specialize in the construction industry and flying up to 400 feet as a limit is one of the rules if i especially if i don’t have internet connection that’s that’s a deal breaker and i wouldn’t be able to do certain jobs because of that role over the last 10 years dji has brought pro-level aerial photography to the masses

The biggest voice to come out against the faa’s rule is dji by far the world’s biggest maker of drones it warns the proposed regulation would damage innovation you’re not going to have incredible drone on demand services to do all sorts of industrial tasks you’re not going to have people experimenting with amazing camera shots in movies unless you have a robust

Amateur market for drones people need to be able to buy a drone try it out find out if they like it and if they love it keep digging into it more and so it’s very important that regulatory systems for drones don’t freeze out people who might just want to go to a park like this and fly the reality is that these concerns may have to give way as the new world of

Flying aircraft becomes not just a dream but a necessity it may be hard to imagine now but the ups and downs of mankind are hard to predict after the dawn of coronavirus the people i spoke to will be hoping to lift their vision up to reality these clear blue skies may soon be a quaint memory from the past the way we fly in our helicopter high up in the sky

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How drones and air taxis could transform our skies | FT By Financial Times

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