Flying Drone Taxis Get Nevada Nod For Testing To Solve Traffic Woes

Kenneth Lim

Flying drone taxis have become a real possibility after getting the green light from the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS) for test flights above the state. This decision comes in the wake of excitement generated by Chinese one-passenger drone prototypes touted at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last January 6 to 9, 2016.

The buzz about flying drone taxis emanates from the "intelligent aerial vehicles" developed by Guangzhou-based company Ehang and exhibited at the C.E.S. Ehang's 184 drone has been approved for testing conditional on the NIAS meeting the requirements for such an activity in the coming months.

According to BBC, Macquarie consultancy senior analyst Douglas McNeill offered his opinion of the flying drone concept. He stressed the need for passengers to feel safe riding pilotless taxis.

"Drones will first have to prove their worth in less people-facing roles such as deliveries of small cargo. The other question is whether people will be willing to fly in a pilotless aircraft, and that seems like a big leap. People are sensitive to reduced journey times, and if drones could do that it would be a big plus – but I'm not sure that they can. Consumers are led by what regulators say are safe. And if they say these drones are safe, people might be more willing."

Critics caution enthusiasts that it will take time before flying crafts become commonplace. The fact is, the Nevada trials don't mean airborne drone taxis will be dropping from the skies anytime soon to pick up passengers as per sci-fi films like Bruce Willis' The Fifth Element (1997).

It is likely the flying drone taxis will look like the Las Vegas prototype, which is over 4 feet tall, weighing 440 pounds and sporting eight propellers. Based on Ehang manuals, it can carry a single passenger for 23 minutes at 60 miles per hour.

Passengers who board the flying drone taxis are required to enter their destination on a 12-inch touchscreen in front of the seat, and leave it to the drone's on-board computer to work out the best route.

Because no passenger over-ride function is available in the flying drone, the user cannot take control in an emergency. However, when malfunction happens, the airborne taxis are designed to land in the nearest open area.

Ehang's press site lists the requirements for flying in the 184 craft, including the size of the passenger's carry-on bag (16 inches). However, left unsaid about Ehang's 184 is whether the drone will gain certification soon by international flight authorities in China, the United States, New Zealand and Europe where Ehang launches are planned. The 184 crafts would be impossible to fly legally in the United Kingdom under current regulations, especially as taxis.

The Guardian reports that aside from the NIAS, Ehang has also partnered with the Nevada Governor's Office of Economic Development (Goed) to put the flying drone through testing and regulatory approval. In favor of airborne taxis is the fact that Nevada has been a test bed for advanced transport solutions over the past five years.

Goed's aerospace and defence specialist Tom Wilczek has been optimistic about flying drones coming of age. He described how Nevada has opened its doors to the possibility of airborne taxis.

"The State of Nevada, through NIAS, will help guide Ehang through the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) regulatory process with the ultimate goal of achieving safe flight."

Ehang's 184 being tested later this year will have to prove airworthiness to the FAA, with guidance from NIAS, before being allowed to offer the public a way to bypass traffic woes by means of flying drone taxis.

[Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images]