So let me ask you: what big future events have you changed your mind about in recent years? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
As we’ll now see, a fantastic and incredibly profitable new global mobility solution is now on our ten year horizon with
(aka “multi-rotor electric AVs”) and their less-recognized cousins, passenger drones (aka “fixed- and variable wing EVTOL AVs” — that’s a mouthful). Purists remind us that “drones” originally referred to only the unmanned variety, but everyone is now calling these human-carrying machines droneplanes as well, and I recommend you do too. It’s a perfectly good one-syllable word. drones
In coming decades, these clever new machines will be built into very fast and efficient
, on-demand services that can achieve incredibly high densities in leading cities. Using them will be expensive in the 2020’s, and it is my hope that we’ll see air deliveries for urgent goods first, but the most exciting application, multipassenger commuter drones, should start to get mass-affordable for daily use in the 2030s. So just like we see with pollution, spam, and other technology-created or enabled problems, we can predict urban gridlock will subside, at an accelerating rate, as these networks start to seriously scale in the 2030s. air delivery and air taxi networks
Consider that removing urban gridlock is a far more exciting and valuable objective than, for example, going faster between major urban areas. Even if we had a
train between LA and San Francisco today, we’d still be stuck with the awful traffic in each of those destinations once we got there. It’s the Hyperloop , the 30 billion hours that Americans spend commuting each year , that are the top transportation problems for urbanites everywhere. full week of each of our lives that we waste in traffic annually are part of the solution, but they are going to be Self-driving cars , just like every other car. With the arrival of safe, cheap, and quiet air taxi networks, we can finally see the stuck on our gridlocked road systems ahead. full solution
Let’s briefly discuss each of these issues now, and see how.
These drones become even quieter when you enclose the rotors inside a carbon-fiber tube, creating a
, which we already find in designs like the ducted fan and Lilium drones today. A multifan design like Lilium’s (picture below) seems like it has the potential to be the quietest. The rotor-enclosing tubes can be noise insulated, and the edges can be dynamically adjusted by micromotors, to make the the air rushing through them even quieter yet. Urban Aeronautics
Fortunately, sound levels drop 6 dB with every doubling of distance, so we can require our air delivery and taxi drones to fly high enough not to be heard. Unless they are low-noise engineered, most of today’s drones might have to
before finding a virtual lane in the sky. In some urban areas, drones may allowed to fly low over highways, adding to highway noise. But I hope that doesn’t happen. I think we citizens should fight to reduce our current levels of noise pollution. We need to rise above 3,000 feet , not keep adding to it. measure and reduce urban noise
Fortunately, advanced safety solutions exist today, or are on the near-term horizon. Some of these are expensive, but in the best of all worlds, I hope we’ll require them all before we see drones in large numbers flying overhead.
Another strategy to get people comfortable with drones is to show that they are uniquely helpful in improving public safety. Israel’s
is working on a Urban Aeronautics , a bold and clever early use case, wherever there is political will for better emergency services. These would be much more useful and inexpensive than today’s helicopters. Human-carrying rescue, police and military drones are also of great value. But as David Brin keenly observes in the drone ambulance system , democratic societies desire at least 20X more of these scary technologies (drones, cameras, AIs, guns, etc.) in public hands than in governmental hands. That is why air taxis and privately-owned personal drones are also such critical developments. We don’t want to live, or feel like we live, in an Orwellian state. Transparent Society
Parachutes are another excellent way to increase safety and remove passenger and ground anxiety. Until they have something like robotically reconfigurable carbon fiber wings and can glide to the ground like birds (2050s?), I think both package and commuter drones should also be required to have
that unfold rapidly above the drone (via electromagnets, compressed CO2, or airbag-class explosives) in case of mechanical failure. drone parachutes Skycat is one of several companies that offer such rapid-deploying parachutes for small drones today.
REAPS airbag protection system, developed by Raphael ADS in 2005. These really work!
Such an ecosystem should protect people in the drone and on the ground if there are system failures below 150 feet, the rough height below at which our fastest-deploying full-sized parachutes can safely lower ultralight aircraft in case of electrical or mechanical failure. For mechanical failures at lower heights than this, both passenger and package drones should have both rapid-deploying
“drogue” parachutes (which only slow you down) and airbags, to keep folks in the air and on the ground from getting hurt. For commuter drones, you can place airbags on shoulder harnesses, in the cockpit, and below the craft itself, and the benefits multiply the more you have. Energy-dissipating (“stroking”) seats also protect airborne occupants in crashes. Below-helicopter airbags have even been tested in heavy Apache military helicopters, and they were famously used on the Mars Pathfinder lander. Again, such airbag and drogue parachute ecosystems go a very long way to turning any drone into a , protecting its occupants, and folks on the ground, from lethal decelerations. I hope steadily higher performance standards for such systems are mandated in leading societies in coming years. “beach ball”
Tomorrow’s commuter drones should also have
to augment their lidar or millimeter wave radar giving them sense-and-avoid software , so they can operate safely in all-weather visibility and navigation , and continually avoid birds and other aircraft. I find it sad that we don’t see radar in almost all of today’s commercial and private planes. Along with sense-and-avoid software, it would allow planes to avoid things like bird strikes, telephone poles, balloons, and other objects hidden in fog, clouds, and rain. Millimeter wave radar has been added to some private helicopters today, so it isn’t a matter of cost, size or weight. Rather, it’s a failure of regulatory vision and leadership. fog, clouds, and rain
I don’t know the global statistics for annual average
mid-air collisions or near misses. But a ten-year study (1989–1999) of mid-air collisions found an average of 1.5 such collisions over French territory annually, collectively causing forty-two deaths and nine injuries. Extrapolating this, I’d guess that at least twenty mid-air collisions happen around the world every year, and vastly greater numbers of near misses. In the US, the Aviation Safety Reporting System collects reports of near misses, but reporting is of course voluntary and selective. Fortunately, aviation authorities say numbers of both of these are continually declining per passenger mile. But if we are going to add tens of thousands of delivery and commuter drones to the air, I think we need to , and mandate lidar or radar that allows the drone to avoid other objects, both on the ground and in the air. Our software and hardware are certainly up to this safety challenge. We could start by subsidizing sense-and-avoid technology and software advances in today’s consumer and industrial drones. sense-and-avoid software
These vehicles also need
, to identify the drone and its trusted software variants. We’ll cryptographically secure transponders onto any unknown, and take it down as necessary. Air traffic control also needs to be able to take control of all the drones in any airspace when security needs dictate. We’ll discuss those safety features in the next section, on the kind of autonomy we want to see. swarm our security drones
In their most important safety and performance advance, coming drones will have to be 3. Autonomy. , or acting as a continual backup if humans are flying, so that they can self-fly whenever safety margins are violated by human pilots. The best human-carrying drone designs, in my view, should always allow a passenger the option take over manually at any time. Drone flying can be dead-simple, with a single joystick, as in the human-carrying self-flying . In practice, however, few passengers might ever do that, preferring to let the system fly itself. Volocopter
Given the very high rates of human error in piloting today’s automobiles, and the
the world presently suffers every year, I hope that we’ll demand near-full automation, equivalent to 1.3 million auto fatalities SAE Autonomy Levels 4 or 5 for automobiles, before we allow many drones the sky. I also hope for much better safety systems to protect folks on the ground. Passenger drones need that assigns them their own virtual lane in the sky, space-keeping precisely with other drones, and communicating with ground traffic monitoring systems that can do onboard collision avoidance In this vision, remote emergency landing. , but they take that control only when on-board autonomous or manual flight systems make today’s air traffic control systems gain even more ability to control , or when mistakes for the airspace. security parameters change
We need such top-down control, including the ability to auto-land all airborne drones, to address the eventual problem of terrorist-weaponized drones. No advance is without its potential downsides, and plenty of our dumb cars and trucks have been turned into lethal devices already. Building
, including networks of police and defense drones, is the only strategy smart and scalable enough to combat drone misuse. drone immune systems
This self-flying ability, and the ability to keep human pilots from doing unsafe things, has been
steadily growing in commercial aviation, and as autonomous cars emerge, driven by hardware and software pioneers like , we are going to see it explode in its ability. Visual recognition in 3D in the air is in some ways an Nvidia than it is on the ground, with its constant near-field visual distractions. Tesla has already mostly solved the problem of self-driving automobiles working with human drivers and preventing them from causing accidents, as we see in the easier autonomy problem Tesla Autopilot. It won’t be long before someone brings (AI, pilot, and ground control) to the drone platform. Perhaps triple-control navigation for military drones will do it first. DARPA’s OFFSET program
The leading Chinese passenger drone, the single-passenger
, commendably has fully remote piloting (ground control) and they claim to have full self-flying ability as well, though I doubt it is Level 5 autonomy. Most crucially for me, they haven’t tried to solve the most socially valuable problem, the one Tesla is working on, of creating eHang 184 . That kind of human machine partnership, one where the AI gives us the option of control when we want it, but also actively prevents us from being unsafe, is the only kind of AI that makes both us and our machines better partners. a form of autonomy that allows both pilot and AI navigation . The kind of AI that takes away our agency and abilities, the kind Waymo is developing for its self-driving cars today, is a big step in the wrong direction, in my view. It’s time we held our increasingly intelligent machines to a higher standard. They need to empower us, not make us weak and dependent. Such “Partnership AI” is the kind of AI we deserve in all our complex machines
There’s one more thing we should say about drone autonomy. Even with today’s low autonomy systems, drones and droneplanes are far more able to do
than ordinary planes, which drift uncontrollably tens to hundreds of feet up and down with the wind, a problem that is greatly magnified by precision flying . That little-discussed fact is another reason why drones will be the most popular form factor for urban aerial package delivery and commuting. Conventional planes, airships, and other forms of flight just can’t fly precisely enough, in all types of weather, to be allowed in our urban airspace in any large numbers. While we may use airships for heavy lifting applications, self-flying drones and droneplanes are our majority future. bad weather
Early versions of truly safe and fully autonomous drones will surely cost over a hundred thousand dollars, putting them outside the price range of the average consumer. But once these are used in 4. Cost. , those costs are easily amortized. on-demand networks
Even a single-passenger drone should be able to shuttle five to ten people to work, and home from work, every workday, and be available for other commuting in between. Multi-passenger versions will be even more efficient and affordable. We’re already seeing a few drone designs, like those of
Joby Aviation, that carry four passengers. Air taxi commuting cost will start high cost, and be only for rich folks for the first few years, like the first Ubers, the black cars, but it will rapidly drop as adoption scales.
Today’s 5. Range, Speed, and Power. only stay in the air for 20–30 minutes, and most of the current designs are only good for lifting two occupants, a driver and a single passenger. But as they follow inner space trends in battery electric drones , lithium-ion batteries have, on average, become 7% more energy dense every year, since first introduced in 1991. That means they STEM efficiency and density . double their range per weight every ten years
One more range doubling should be plenty to cover the 22 mile average round trip distance of the typical commuter in a multi-passenger drone, plus an additional safety margin to get back to the droneport and swap batteries.
promise to have vastly greater range, reducing the need for recharging or battery swaps. Autonomy will eventually eliminate the need for a driver. Hydrogen-powered drones
Current human-carrying drone designs can fly at
, and droneplanes with ducted fans can fly at up to 65–80 mph , point-to-point with no congestion. These speeds are already fast enough to be highly useful, and they offer major advances for package delivery and commuting in our gridlocked cities. 180 mph
We could let these drones fly everywhere, randomly, or we could make them do 6. Beauty. We could require them to climb higher when there’s traffic, so they stack above each other as high as is necessary, and so that most of our sky stays open and quiet. Once they have lidar or radar, they can fly and lane-keep in all but the worst of weather. virtual lane-keeping.
Requiring lane-keeping would allow us to see orderly and beautiful
when we look up over head. With luck, light blue or white will be popular colors for their undersides, minimizing their visibility from the ground. If we don’t like seeing them at 2,000 or 3,000 feet, we can push those trails as high up as we like. Like our “ant trails in the sky” drone sky art today, we can make those aerial migration patterns orderly, beautiful, and inspiring, if we choose.
At night, we could even allow
with our passenger and delivery drones every once in a while. That would be pretty amazing. I for one would like to see such 21st century fireworks more often than just on the Fourth of July. 🙂 coordinated light shows
In short, we’re off to the races, and these technologies are going to bring huge changes to both our urban and rural environments in coming decades.
Air Deliveries and Air Taxis — A Regulatory Vision
I’d like to see US regulators require for broad commercial use of delivery or commuter drones in our airspace: six things
, with Triple-control navigation. Autonomous flight ability when the system judges it safe, and manual control ability by ground air traffic control. remote piloting override
and Double-redundant (or more) power systems, ballistic parachutes (whole-drone and drogue) , to protect people in the air and on the ground. airbag ecosystems
, which will force turbofan, multirotor or multi-RPM design, fast takeoffs and landings, and higher elevation operation. A low-noise requirement
, which means gas-electric hybrids or fuel cells today for most designs, and in just a few more years, li-ion batteries. A 60-minute range requirement
(radar and lidar), which improves safety, and offers a redundant orientation system besides computer vision. Full-weather visibility
Rather than letting all these drones fly about, willy-nilly, let’s see aerial migration patterns that are orderly, pretty, and inspiring. Lane-keeping.
We may also need some
regarding the collection and sharing of ground data collected by drone sensors. On the other hand, such laws may already exist for today’s drones and private planes, so I haven’t added this requirement to the list above at present. new privacy laws
Finally, when drones are used in fully-automatic mode, we’ll need a new feature called
, the ability of stakeholders (insurers, law enforcement, lawyers, users) to interrogate the drone’s actions so we can understand it’s “ethical architecture” (decisionmaking framework), give it feedback, and when necessary, assign blame and know what needs to be improved in case of any accidents. The EU is pioneering this new legal principle today, as explainability they have added explainability to their General Data Protection Regulations for 2018. In a major legal advance, they are requiring advanced AI systems in use in self-driving cars, roboadvisers, social networks, and other areas where people depend on AI decisions, to be able to in any decision, both during and after the fact. I’ve left explainability off our regulation list, as I expect the first decade of air taxi and air delivery drone use in the US will require a human pilot, either on board or remotely piloting, and that human will have the primary liability for the drone’s safe operation in the early years of use. But when we do add fully-automatic modes to these networks, I firmly believe that explainability should be added to the list as well. That’s a central aspect of safety engineering in our coming machine intelligent world. explain the data and variables they use
In the US,
, and explainability is technically feasible for any advanced AI. After all, we humans have to explain ourselves, using language and any data we can muster, in many legal environments, so it makes sense that we should require this of our AI systems as well, to better determine who is responsible and what needs to change, after failure or damage occurs. Such explainability is never perfect, but requiring it creates a strong incentive to make our AIs better able to communicate with us, better able to understand themselves, and better able to help us decide when they should continue to be allowed to operate as they are, and when they need to be improved or prevented from further use. DARPA is pioneering explainable AI today
Research use should continue to be allowed without many of the above regulations, but the numbers of drones in those cases should be small. It would also be nice to see states (like Nevada) be able to opt out of all of these regs for limited early use and testing. Requiring federal regulations like these might delay the arrival of commercial drones in the US to at least the mid-2020s, and make it harder for small companies to launch services in the early years. But requiring higher standards for widespread use is I think the price we should pay to protect this nascent industry as it emerges.
You may disagree with my views, but hopefully this analysis at least helps you better see what is possible. We will decide these issues politically, as always.
Air Deliveries and Air Taxis — Where We Are Today
The Volocopter (“Volo”)
So where are drone science, tech, and regulation today (early 2018)? The Trump Administration has recently allowed US states to draft their own provisional licences for drone delivery experimentation, subject to approval by the FAA, but the wider regulatory vision for these machines is still far from clear, and doesn’t include all of the six (or eight) things listed above. Talk to any ordinary person about these futures however, and noise and safety concerns come immediately to mind, closely followed by many of the other issues.
Human-carrying drone startups like
Volocopter , Boeing-Aurora , Airbus Vahana , eHang , , Kitty Hawk , Lilium , and Urban Aeronautics have made great progress toward the air taxi vision over the last few years. On March 30, 2016, the Volocopter (above right) made the Joby first manned test flight using redundant electrical systems. That was a big first for this nascent industry. It can fly at , plenty fast enough for urban commuting. Vehicles like Boeing-Aurora’s droneplane (“EVTOL”) design (also above right) will be able to fly even faster, at least 65 miles an hour , enough to commute from nearby cities. 100 mph
eHang 184. First to do passenger flights. Not really very safe yet.
Big in the news these days is
, the small Chinese company most visibly leading the air taxi space at present. They are now (Feb 2018) doing eHang with their eight-rotor drone, the a limited number of passenger flights eHang 184. It has a current max speed of 62 mph. eHang’s innovative design has backup rotors, autonomy, and remote control flying ability, which are all great advances. But it still has Unfortunately those rotors are going to be quite dangerous to folks on the ground in an emergency landing, versus a quieter and even more redundant multirotor design like the Volocopter. If eHang wants to keep this particularly efficient design, their landing gear should telescope higher than a standing human in any emergency landing (see picture above). They also need a whole-drone parachute. I wish eHang had higher safety standards, and the ability of occupants to at least manually deploy parachutes and airbags, because a major accident with any passenger-carrying prototype could easily set back both R&D funding and public interest in this market for several years. no airbags or parachute, and no option for pilot control.
Liliums EVTOL electric “jet” (ducted fan). Design image showing its 36 fans (2017)
The German startup
has even built an EVTOL jet, with a claimed maximum speed of Lilium . It’s the most beautiful design we’ve seen publicly yet. Its 36 electric “jet” (ducted fan) engines allow 180 miles per hour power system design, and are triple redundant compared to traditional rotors. They are also claiming a particularly quiet , though I would bet that’s marketing hype, and I’ll believe that once I see it. See the video below of their 5 min maiden flight in April 2017. one hour flight range
Lilium droneplane maiden flight (YouTube, 2 min, 2017)
All these designs, and others we haven’t seen yet, will turn many collections of nearby cities into commuter
in coming years. By the 2030s, megacities may extend out in a 100-mile radius around our city centers. That will bring a profound change in global urban dynamics and social complexity. “metro”-any-city-name
Besides self-flying ability, one problem none of these companies have yet solved is range. They all use lithium-ion batteries, so most can only stay up for 30 minutes at present. Fortunately, lithium ion energy density (range) has grown 7% a year since 1991, as mentioned earlier, and may continue on that trend for at least another decade as we get increasingly sophisticated in our nanochemistry and nanoengeering.
, battery powered drones and droneplanes should have some very impressive range. In the meantime, mid-2020s are the most obvious bridge solution, and I think we can expect gas-electric hybrid droneplanes to be the leading designs for the next decade. But hybrids aren’t long-term sustainable. Fortunately, Hybrid gas-electrics offer long flight times already, and can be used sustainably, if we charge them with renewables. We may not subsidize their use and performance development today, but we should if we were being more foresighted. hydrogen fuel cells
Let’s look briefly at hydrogen fuel cell technology now. It is being developed as a hedge by a few big companies at present, most notably Toyota. Fuel cells don’t make a lot of sense today for passenger vehicles like the
Toyota Mirai, but they are improving just like batteries, and they are a great option for long-range uses, like Toyota’s prototoype fuel cell-powered truck, and hopefully, coming hydrogen-powered air taxis and air delivery platforms as well.
The simplest way to store hydrogen for aviation is as a compressed gas, in
. These already offer about half the range of fossil fuel airplanes. A 2X range improvement, making hydrogen nearly as energy-dense as fossil fuels, can be achieved with carbon fiber tanks . See Juan Plaza’s cryogenic tanks Will Hydrogen Fuel Cells Help Drones Stay in the Air?, Commercial UAV News, 6.5.17 for some recent developments. As R&D progresses, cryogenic tanks may get much more affordable, and increasingly be used for long-range applications.
EnergyOr’s Tron H2 Droneplane (EVTOL)
, a Chinese manufacturer of industrial drones, has built MMC , a small fuel cell powered drone for industrial and military use. Their two models have a flight time of 2.5 and 4.5 hours, a HyDrone than our best current battery drones. In the US, 3–4X better range Ballard’s Protonex also makes fuel cell-based for drones, primarily for military applications. As this 2017 whitepaper shows, they presently offer than the best batteries. 2–3X better range
EnergyOr is making fuel cells for sale in drones, and droneplanes, including the , which does vertical takeoff and landing and has an incredible Tron H2 , roughly eight hour flight time better than our best battery drones. Our US Navy Research Lab has also built the 7X , a 35-lb, 5-lb payload fuel cell fixed-wing UAV which flew for Ion Tiger in 2009 using compressed hydrogen fuel tanks, and 26 hours in 2013 using miniature, NRL-developed cryogenic tanks. 48 hours
Again, the longer the range you need, the more fuel cells, if they can keep getting more dependable and affordable, may become the best power option, as they offer both a much higher energy density and more rapid rechargeability than batteries. They are already a lot safer than fossil fuel aircraft and cars and getting safer every year. Will they find a niche in coming drone platforms? We shall see.
The Tron H2 (2017, YouTube, 2 min). A long-haul fuel cell droneplane.
Droneplanes for Navy ships and other military, intelligence, disaster, fire, and work environments are a great first-tier application of droneplanes over the next decade. See the
video at right of the Tron H2. Platforms like this are being looked at by a number of defense customers today. For you VCs and big company leaders, I’d argue that a small company like EnergyOr is an ideal company to be invested in or acquired for defense drone production today, and they could be positioned for package delivery drone production in the early 2020s.
I would also hope that commercial
will arrive ahead of commercial air taxi networks by at least three to five years, as the physics, safety, and regulation issues are so much easier to work out for that application. Unfortunately it presently looks like the reverse is going to happen, as drone commuting is such a mesmerising and high-value application. So let’s at least make air taxi safety our first priority. air delivery drone networks
Taxi and delivery drones will be particularly useful in rural and mountainous areas, with bad and indirect roads. Imagine what an on-demand drone network, first for packages and a few years later for people, will do for the value of
presently an hour or more from any big city by car. Hold on to that real estate, friends, if you have any. Your transportation options will start to get a whole lot better about a decade from now, in my estimation. mountain and urban real estate
Droneboxes and Droneports
Drones that deliver people or packages to our homes and offices need places to drop their packages without landing, places to land temporarily, and places be hangared and serviced when not in use. Good generic names for such places might be
and droneboxes . Feel free to use these names if you like them, or suggest others. Perhaps a courteous reader will make us some droneports for these two topics as well? Wikipedia pages
We can envision droneports and droneboxes on the roofs of commercial and apartment buildings, in our residential front, back, and side yards, and in many other locations. The top of a typical residential dronebox may need to be
, higher than at least seven feet above the ground can typically jump, and it should be able to protect packages from dogs and thieves including rain, show, and hail. bad weather
Amazon Patent for a Home Delivery Dronebox (2015)
Look at the following two patents Amazon has filed for droneboxes and droneports. I like how
they are thinking. The picture above shows a package-accepting dronebox that is essentially like a bio-inspired . It opens up its flower at the top when the drone gets above it, it slows down the fall of the package to the bottom, presumably via “petals” inside, the bottom is presumably accessible via a locked door, and closes its petals after deliver to protect against inclement weather. The accordion-aspect of this design seems unnecessary. Most of us would rather have a chimney that doesn’t move, one we can store multiple packages within. Such a dronebox will likely have an internal sensor to report when a package is delivered, and some droneboxes may allow drones to stiff plastic “hairs” , extending their range. land and recharge on their roofs
Amazon Patent for a Drone Delivery Hub (2015)
The Amazon patent at right shows a
they might use as a regional hub, with their warehouse at the bottom, maximizing surface area for drone takeoff and landing from the local distribution center. Again, the “beehive like” droneport is quite beautiful. bio-inspired design
Pan Am Heliport in NYC, 1970. These will return in the 2030s, as Droneports.
As we think of the future of passenger drones, we can hope that progressive countries will ban gas-only drones, requiring
at least, with both gas-electric hybrids and electric fast chargers at all the major droneports in the city. hydrogen filling stations
will be suburban droneports , with petal-like at least three stories high extending out from the landing pad at the top, so most of the takeoff and landing noise doesn’t reach the ground. As Elon Musk likes to say, we won’t be landing passenger drones in typical suburban backyards, as anything of ours or our neighbors not tied down might blow away. 🙂 That fact, and noise minimizing, are why I think our suburban droneport zoning will either require a lot of acreage or being up off the ground. Those of us without all that acreage will use suburban sound baffles ideally a few minutes from our homes by car. We can also expect a large number of licensed droneports, , and occasional-use droneports informing us when emerging landings are being attempted outside of allowed areas. drone hazard lights
Many early suburban droneports will likely be retrofit
, like the old PanAm heliport in NYC (picture right). But the most space-efficient would be office buildings , allowing long-term parking (of cars and drones) and efficient servicing by mechanics. Such specialty architecture multi-story drone hangars with elevators will give city dwellers and commuters more places to park their self-driving cars, and the parking capacity needed for high-demand destinations.
for self-driving electric vehicles, electric subways, and perhaps also Underground automated highways Boring Company networks, will eventually link our urban droneports as well. I wrote a detailed forecast about such underground highways in 2005, and predicted they’d start emerging in our wealthiest cities around 2030. Underground transportation networks will support the largest passenger volumes, but they’ll also be and astronomically more expensive than drone networks, which I simply did not see in 2005. scale far slower
Leading Delivery and Passenger Drone Companies
Who are likely to be the major players in this new industry? Let’s look at just a few of the more obvious contenders.
Amazon Prime Air Drone Prototype (2013)
For air deliveries,
has long been making the biggest moves in package delivery drones, an initiative they call Amazon . Amazon now has truly global scale. In 2011, they had 33,000 employees. By the end of 2016, they had 300,000, hiring 100,000 people in that year. They are hiring at least 100,000 more in 2017, mostly for warehouse work. Imagine how much bigger they will get once they figure out package delivery drones. Hold on to your Amazon stock, friend. Prime Air
Amazon Prime Air Droneplane (2015)
Amazon announced their
Prime Air R&D effort with a bang in 2013, and a modest prototype (picture left) initially to much skepticism. Their 2015 design (picture right), able to deliver packages up to five pounds, is greatly improved. It is a fusion of drone and plane that the aviation industry calls an . As I’ve said, I prefer the simpler and equally descriptive term EVTOL , and recommend it to you. Droneplanes take off and land vertically, but can also fly like planes, so they are particularly fast and efficient for longer distance flight. droneplane
Amazon’s current droneplanes are still all electric versus fuel cell, they aren’t quiet, and they can still hurt people by falling from the sky. But they are pursuing fully autonomous flight with “air traffic” like human supervision, and since 2015, the
FAA is granting research exemptions for such systems. So they’re making progress.
For air taxis,
is positioning itself very cleverly by investing in the Daimler , my second-favorite air taxi design at present, after Volocopter , another German startup discussed above. Daimler’s stock may be a very good buy and hold right now, as few folks realize their leadership pivot into this massive new industry. Lilium’s , and passenger drones are going to be a very big part of that. If Volocopter can rapidly develop autonomy and on-demand software, and add external airbags, I could easily see Daimler taking the lead position in this nascent industry. Mobility is a $10 Trillion dollar annual industry could do so as well. Tencent-backed Lilium
is the most visibly working toward self-flying commuter drones, in an initiative they call Uber . They Uber Elevate published a whitepaper articulating the value and feasibility of these services in 2016, formed a research partnership with Aurora, and started an inaugural Elevate Summit in 2017, to jump-start this nascent industry. Their first conference had 72 industry speakers on various issues in manufacturing, regulation, and investment around urban commuter drones. See this great video by Dagogo Altraide, Uber’s Electric Flying Taxis, ColdFusion 7.28.2017 (YouTube, 12 mins), for more. Uber has had moral failures and missteps of late, but they seem to be making necessary changes, and I expect they will eventually get through those unfortunate issues and rebound.
Consumers will want
as major options, as that competition will drive down the cost of air taxi services as fast as possible. Of each of these, I would expect the on-demand systems, commercial services, and private leasing and ownership to support the largest and most affordable daily ridership relatively soon after network launch. The cheaper it becomes for private individuals to own, hangar, and pay for service certification for their drones, the cheaper air taxi services will become for all of us. on-demand model is already lowering the cost and ease of helicopter commuting in NYC by Blade , contracting private helicopter owners to fly others in their helicopters on demand. a factor of four
So in the first ten years of drone network launch, the cost of a short urban aerial hop might be equivalent to taking an
Uber Black today. Maintaining drones should neither be prohibitively expensive for wealthy private individuals nor particularly cheap. Without any research behind this guess, I’d imagine the commuter market might be something like (on-demand/commercial/private) ten years after it first becomes legal for individuals to fly passengers for hire in any city, but that’s just a hunch. Much depends on cost and reliability. 7 0/20/10
is a top contender for making commercial drones for our air taxi networks. In 2017 they purchased Aurora, aligning them with Uber. Aurora makes not only an EVTOL, they also make Orion, a Boeing platform (a topic we’ll discuss those in another post), and several other defense UAVs. Boeing is another very smart company I’d recommend for your long-term investment portfolio. If I was to bet, I’d predict that Boeing will try to buy Monterey’s stratellite , a stealth startup that has been working in this space for years and that just got a $100M investment from Jet Blue and others. We haven’t seen it yet, but some say their passenger-carrying droneplane is the most advanced yet. Joby Aviation
is also positioning publicly to be a player in the drone delivery and commuting space. Airbus is their commuter drone, and they began working with the CAA in Singapore to test Vahana in 2017, using an autonomous platform called drone parcel delivery , on the National University of Singapore campus. Through direct innovation or purchase, like Boeing, they are also likely to be leaders in exploring this space. Skyways
Google’s spin out
may also become leaders in in self-flying drone software, if they raise funds for that, and Google-affiliated Waymo might become a leader in software and services for drone pilots. Kitty Hawk’s CEO Sebastian Thrun originally ran Google’s self-driving car project, and they are funded by Google co-founder Larry Page. Commendably, Thrun’s Udacity is offering a nanodegree in Kitty Hawk , and hoping to get at least 10,000 engineers taking the course. There have been a growing number of such MOOCs for consumer drones in recent years, and they are a great way to train up the next generation of drone engineers. Flying Cars and Autonomous Flight
Will Waymo/Kitty Hawk develop an
something like open drone navigation software platform , able to be partly customized by a wide range of drone manufacturers for either drone delivery or commuting applications? I would doubt it over the next five years, publicly at least. Given the high safety concern and the quality control problems with that approach, no big company will pursue this initially, and small companies and startups likely don’t have the capital to make it work. I think we can expect proprietary navigation platforms to dominate for at least the first five years of commercial drone operation. Nevertheless, our leading proprietary commercial players may be forced to go open with their development tools during this decade if one of them moves first, or if the open source community is able to develop reasonably good software for drone package and people delivery, and raise funds to get it certified by regulators. Android
Fortunately, the US military is already recognizing the power of an open development approach, using both open virtual- and closed physical-world testbeds for swarm drone R&D in defense applications. In 2018,
has begun working with two large systems integrators, DARPA’s OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program and Raytheon , to create open architectures (physical and virtual), collaboration interfaces, and tactics exchange platforms, for small academic and business teams to use, and these systems integrators are developing closed physical testbeds to validate new unmanned systems designs and strategies. Such a dual-security approach (open source and closed source security) is very wise, in my view, and should keep our military at the center of drone defense innovation. Northrop Grumman
China’s DJI Phantom Drone (2017). DJI currently leads the consumer drone market.
Returning to commercial uses, we may also see
, Amazon’s major global competitor, get into drones. An obvious strategy would be Alibaba, or an AI-oriented Chinese company like Alibaba , partnering with or buying Baidu , the current leaders in passenger drones, or eHang , the private Chinese company presently dominating the unmanned drone market. DJI
Perhaps DJI will go public, and make a big push into
, with advanced safety and noise reduction features. They could sell those to a vast range of companies. They could then launch their first human-carrying drones a few years after taking the lead position in the drone package delivery hardware and software space. I think such a strategy would give DJI the greatest future value and scale, but it would involve more risk and change, so they may not go that route. autonomous package-delivery drones
is another impressive Chinese company that might well get into this space. Its founder, chemist BYD (Build Your Dreams) Wang Chuanfu, has been called the “Elon Musk of China.” Like Musk, Chaunfu is a global leader in Li-ion batteries, solar panels, and electric vehicles. They are the world’s largest producer of electric cars, buses, forklifts, and other electrics, and have been profitable since 2002. Tesla, by contrast, has yet to turn a profit, though they do have great ambition and tremendous public goodwill. BYD is a question mark at present, but if they get into this game they’d be strong innovator and competitor.
I think the long-term global future of drones, as they are so beneficial to all of us, deserves an
. Open source development and testing will make progress and is highly desirable, but it is probably unrealistic to expect it to to be commercially and legally viable in the first decade of commercial drones. Amazon, Google/Waymo, Uber, and Boeing are all US companies I’d love to see as leaders in this race, but it would also be good to see Chinese companies like DJI, BYD, Alibaba, Baidu, and of course Europe’s Airbus, also in the competition. But we need them to play fair as well. China’s leading solar manufacturers open IP, publicly funded, global innovation approach dropped world prices by 80% between 2008–2013, which made them globally dominant, but they had extensive government support in the process. America should have offered the same level of support to our solar innovators, but we didn’t.
If future drone leadership is totally dominated by China, or by any other non-US company aided by government support, that will be mud on the faces of US politicians in both parties who don’t believe
aid US economic growth and innovation leadership. We innovated many of these drone ideas, and the race is ours to lose at present. As with solar panels, electric cars, fuel cells, and other future-critical technologies, smart US government support and subsidies are sorely needed in the smart government subsidies , which are a clearly a coming transformative technology. production and sale of advanced drones
In my view, America sorely needs government policy with drones that is neither right wing or left wing, but
, or progress-oriented, advancing priorities like the up wing . We need to be proactive, not reactive, to the trends and futures in front of us. Five Goals and Ten Values
Why Gridlock Will Finally Get Solved
Why will urban gridlock finally start to subside in the 2030s? There are lots of reasons, but these four seem particularly important:
People will continue to
, but affordable housing density increase, the main contributor to gridlock, is much harder to scale than affordable air transportation, which reduces it. migrate to the cities The better broadband and AR get, the more often people will
. It’s going to increasingly be more efficient, for much of our work, than physical commuting. telework Population growth has been
in our developed countries for decades now. Global population will peak around negative 8.7 billion circa 2050, give or take a decade, and decline rapidly from there. China, for example, is now (2018) losing 5M a year in its working-age population. The Chinese government projects their total population to peak at 1.45B in 2030, and to decline by 30%, to 1B, by 2100. Their two-child policy, started in 2015, is not producing nearly as many second child families as they hoped. They’re going to have to offer more economic incentives to induce parents to have that second child, in order to have all the working youth they presently think they will need to pay for their aging population. But China is a fast learner, and they’ll soon learn that automation and AI, two areas they are seeking lead, are far more important than youth demographics in creating prosperity for all. Higher standards for childraising, and a preference for fewer kids than our parents, on average, are global inevitabilities, the richer we become. It will be great if they help more parents with the economic burden of childraising, but China’s parents already know that better educated and more entrepreneurial children are usually a much better choice than more children. As the saying goes, as China goes today, so should the rest of the emerging nations go in the next few generations. These coming air transportation networks are
than our current urban transportation systems, except in those cities that have already invested billions in mass transit. Unlike cars, which sit unused 95% of the time, the coming on-demand air taxi networks are much faster, more efficient and scalable , with the vehicles being reused continuously, and increasingly intelligently, creating a maximal social and economic benefit to offset the environmental cost of building them. They are also much like trains , so they are the best choice for our urban mass transit investments, going forward. far more point-to-point capable than trains
Yes, the increased performance we get from these networks will cause us to use them more than we do today’s delivery and commuting networks. But people can only increase demand so much, because we are people. Our biological needs are sharply finite. The smarter our machines get, the more their transportation needs will dominate, not ours. Once we understand the
Race to Inner Space, it’s pretty obvious that tomorrows smart machines won’t be consuming physical goods at anything like our rate, or physically moving their bodies around to sightsee, like we do. They’ll have much more interesting and efficient things to do, as we discuss in Chapter 7 of the Guide. So as a rough guess, I’d bet annual car and drone production starts some time mid-century as well. decelerating
But in the meantime, we can expect an exponential adoption and production ride. Are you looking for a great problem to solve? This one could be yours.
Getting Better Transportation Foresight
Sperling and Gordon’s
(2009) is a nice little book that aptly described some aspects of the future of transportation, and the forces preventing that future, when it came out at the time. The authors made the case that we need to Two Billion Cars our autos and trucks as soon as we can. There were over a billion cars in the world at the time, and they projected we’d add another billion cars by 2030. They explored a number of ways that short-sighted our politicians, auto execs, and the oil industry have blocked or stalled decarbonization innovation. In developed economies like the US, transportation produces nearly 30% of greenhouse gases, and cars and trucks alone cause nearly 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Since there are so many economic incentives for the big players and their captured politicians to delay and go-slow our switch from fossil fuels, and the developing world gets cheaper ICE cars every year, they explore why transportation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions are going to get worse before they get better. decarbonize
Sperling and Gordon (2009)
But foresight is a tricky thing, and unless you make your process
as open as possible, it is easy to miss big parts of the future. While they discuss , the authors did not recognize how fast electric vehicles would improve and spread, driven by electrification inner space efficiency trends. They also say nothing about cars, even though they’d been around since 1995, and nothing about autonomous transportation. To be fair, Uber started in March 2009, but the iPhone launched in 2007, and the near-Uber service on-demand Taxi Magic began operations in 2008. All three of these solutions, electrification, autonomy (in the air and on the ground), and on-demand services, are great ways to create a much more sustainable transportation network, and I’m probably missing some other general solutions as well (see any? let me know).
Someone should write a followup book, called
, that describes the greatly Two Hundred Million Self-Driving Cars and Drones (intelligent, autonomous) and dematerialized (miniaturized, efficient) future of urban transportation. Unfortunately, given our current global leadership, I expect the negative scenario outlined in densified Two Billion Cars is likely to materialize. Another billion of today’s unintelligent, carbon-belching fossil fuel cars are likely to be produced and driven globally in coming years.
But at the same time, we can now see that the safe, sustainable, affordable, rapid-transit future we all want is waiting patiently ahead: on-demand autonomous electric cars and drones, delivered in intelligent air delivery and air taxi networks.
Yes, Flying Cars are Finally in View
Taylor Aerocar (1949). Six were built. One is still flying and driving today 🙂
Convair Model 118 (1947). A plastic car body, intended to attach to a rentable airframe at the local airport. Sweet, and impossibly utopian.
If America gets commercial air taxis and private passenger drones in the mid-2020s, that will give us
flying cars exactly one hundred years after the (1926), a personal plane designed and sold by Ford Flivver , for individual garages. Ford was the world’s first flying car entrepreneur. We’ll get them eighty years after the Henry Ford (1947, picture left), and the Convair Model 118 (1949, picture right), and sixty years after that future-visioning cartoon series Taylor Aerocar first aired in 1962. See The Jetsons What Happened to Flying Cars?, Second Thought, 3.28.17 (YouTube, 7 min), for some of that great history.
Flying car vision (Jetsons, 1962)
My grandmother watched us go
from Kitty Hawk to the moon in sixty-seven years. For my part, I bet I’ll see us go from the Jetsons vision to its real-world implementation, in roughly the same amount of time. That is a great example of accelerating technological change, a topic I study at our little nonprofit, the Acceleration Studies Foundation.
Some aerospace experts, like Jim Harris, in
We won’t be flying in electric planes for at least 15 years, CNBC, 10.13,17, argue we won’t see these in the US until the 2030’s. But given what we’re seeing in Dubai, which plans to launch their first air taxi service this summer, I think he’s being too conservative. I bet we’ll see commercial air taxis in the US within ten years, maybe even earlier. Uber’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, now says he thinks Uber could be offering them to their first customers in five to ten years. Just give us those parachutes and airbags, please. Pretty please.
If you want to follow or join this emerging industry, two good conferences are
AUVSI’s (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) XPONENTIAL conference, which has been going since 2012 (it was previously called Unmanned Systems) and the Uber Elevate Summit, started in 2017. AVUSI is the largest unmanned systems and robotics community, at 7,500 members, and their conference has about 8,000 participants. It is mostly defense and industry oriented. Elevate is much smaller, but its very helpfully focused on the commuter drone vision. There a number of other good drone conferences, but none to my knowledge that focus on delivery drones. Some entrepreneur should start one soon.
The next time someone says to you, in a sarcastic tone “Where’s my flying car, mr/ms. futurist?” You can tell them it’s finally in view. You can also tell them advances in
(sustainable power), nanotech (self-flying), infotech and safety engineering were key hurdles that had to be overcome before we had a clean, safe, and affordable solution for millions of commuters. noise engineering Some great futuristic ideas take time!