Drone technology has taken off in a big way and is changing several different business sectors, from personal usage and filmography, to radically transforming the delivery sector and making leaps in terms of mobility. Drones have advanced so rapidly, that the technology is paving the way for passenger drones, and becoming the first prototypes for a centuries-long dream of “flying cars”.
In the mobility sector, drones operate as vertical take-off and landing (or VTOL) aircrafts. A VTOL vehicle is an aircraft that takes off, hovers and lands vertically, and thus does not require a runway. Often referred to as passenger drones, these are still in the early stages of development, but they provide a futuristic look into how we may move around in urban spaces in the coming decades. Several players are developing their own prototypes, eager to win a share of the urban mobility market of the future. Among others, two German companies, Lilium Jet and Volocopter, have already piloted electric VTOL test flights and presented very advanced concepts of their creations.
Currently, the most common VTOL aircraft in use is the helicopter, but this mode of transport falls short in terms of meeting the requirements for day-to-day urban transportation. One of the most crucial boxes that passenger drones must tick, is that they must be highly energy efficient. Unlike helicopters, most of the current prototypes are already electric or have significantly reduced emissions, but in order to make them suitable for future urban mobility, these should strive for zero emissions and they must be substantially quieter than a helicopter. Furthermore, the long-term business strategy for drone mobility is to develop a fully autonomous air travel solution.
By combining the best of autonomous driving technology, ridesharing intelligence and drone engineering, passenger drones could be a strong contender to upend the mobility industry. If drones took off in such a way that they would be capable of transporting large numbers of people, they could provide a solution to the problem of congestion in urban areas, alleviating both traffic and pollution.
The challenges surrounding drones as a form of mobility are extensive and there is much scepticism over whether they will ever achieve the commercial success that forward-thinkers dream of. The maturity of the technology is still an open question, and logistical factors such as governmental regulation and air traffic management indicate that drone mobility will likely not be adopted before 2025-2050.
To create a unified traffic management system, a wide network of designated take-off and landing ports, parking and battery stations will need to be built. As well as being immensely costly, in overcrowded urban areas where there is already a shortage of space, infrastructure could pose a challenge. Heavy financial investment from key players and the rapid pace of technological advancement, however, suggest that these hurdles will be overcome.
Concerns over safety, as well as breaking down the psychological barriers that customers may face in using passenger drones are arguably much bigger challenges. Drones used for mobility, especially fully autonomous ones, will need to meet extensive safety requirements and all operations will be meticulously scrutinised. As for overcoming the psychological barrier to fly in a pilotless aircraft, users will require assurance from regulatory authorities and manufacturers, as well as extensive testing and safety records.
The commercialisation of non-transportation drones has already begun and is a market that is currently thriving. Delivery drones are the starting point for this, with several companies, like Amazon, Ehang and Uber heavily investing in the technology. Furthermore, the global market for drones is expected to grow substantially until 2035, with passenger drones coming in second.
A key feature of drone mobility, is that it is a market that clearly favours usership over ownership. When looking at the bigger picture of passenger drones and “flying cars”, these are simply too expensive. Even when one takes into consideration that costs will eventually go down, early prototypes are still likely to require certified and licensed pilots, making these inaccessible to the mainstream public.
Although there are already companies boasting fully autonomous vehicles, these still have a long way to go before becoming fully commercial. Additionally, maintenance and repair to keep such aircrafts operating to required standards will be extensive. This technology therefore lends itself nicely to a leasing company model.
The opportunity for leasing companies to capitalise on drone mobility and add these to their existing portfolios is promising. With a significant reduction in travel times, companies with multiple locations could implement landing ports on their premises and invest in shared drone mobility to commute quickly between sites. With an already existing network of customers and a solid establishment in fleet operations, leasing companies are well set-up to extend their ground-based business model and take it to the skies.
Despite heavy investments and rapid advancement in drone technology – as with fully autonomous vehicles – a commercial business model is still several years, if not decades, away. If executed correctly, however, drones have the capability of solving multiple problems to do with modern urban travel.