Drones seem to be everywhere. Once used almost exclusively for military operations, today’s drones fly over sporting events, political rallies, even weddings. Soon, they’ll even be delivering packages to our homes.
Despite their many uses, current-generation drones have one significant limitation: by definition, they’re unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) — but change is literally in the air.
Companies are now testing single-seat passenger drones. The machines now in development are something of a cross between helicopters and traditional drones, although not ALL of them are like that as we’ll see below.
Look! Up in the Sky
Four of the most high-profile single-seat passenger drones under current development include the Volocopter, the Ehang 184, the MA Hoverbike, and the Aero-X.
The Volocopter VC200 was one of the first single-seat passenger drones to be publicly announced. Created by E-Volo, a company based in Karlsruhe, Germany, the Volocopter features 18 separate rotors operated by a one-handed joystick.
To maneuver the Volocopter, you move the joystick left and right to turn, pushing an “up” or “down” button to climb or descend. To land, just press the down button until safely on the ground.
Can you trust your life to a one-armed joystick? Perhaps, when you consider that at the heart of the Volocopter are numerous sensors including gyroscopes, accelerometers, and magnetometers. Combined with an onboard computer system, these sensors allow the aircraft to safely fly mostly autonomously.
As The Economist notes:
The pilot—or operator as they might more accurately be called—provides only basic commands, leaving the aircraft itself to take care of any necessary maneuvers, balancing itself during a hover, automatically holding its position and compensating for changing conditions, such as a sudden cross wind.
Operated by an in-seat pilot or a remote operator, the Volocopter could serve a broad range of purposes like transporting people or heavy loads, farming of fields, rescue operations, a yacht tender or shuttle service, or even for recreation and amusement.
E-Volo has yet to announce price and availability for the Volocopter. However, in 2013, CNN reported that it would cost $338,000.
The Ehang 184
Another single-seat passenger drone under current development is the Chinese-based Ehang 184, first introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2016.
Unlike the Volocopter, the tablet-controlled Ehang 184 looks every bit like a small helicopter, featuring four propellers that spin parallel to the ground. The electric-powered drone is fully chargeable in two hours and can stay in the air for 23 minutes at sea level.
Inside, the Ehang 184 includes air conditioning and a reading light. It’s designed to fit, with propellers folded, in a single parking spot.
The MA Hoverbike
Malloy Aeronautics, a British company, is also building a single-passenger drone. However, unlike the Volocopter and Ehang 184, the MA Hoverbike doesn’t get its inspiration from helicopters. Instead, you sit on the Hoverbike like a motorcycle.
The current, third-generation MA Hoverbike prototype features four rotors: two at the front and another two at the rear. Each one overlaps and moves in a circular pattern.
Possible uses include aerial cattle mustering, search and rescue, film, power line inspection, and more.
The MA Hoverbike is still in the early stages of development. In fact, Malloy has yet to test the machine with a human on board. When launched, the MA Hoverbike is likely to be priced at between $50,000 and $60,000.
Of all the single-passenger drones currently in development, the Aero-X is perhaps the one most likely to make it to consumers. First announced in 2014, the Aero-X by Aerofex hopes to provide “low-altitude flight realistic and affordable.”
With the Aero-X, a single passenger can fly up to 10 feet off the ground at 45 miles per hour and, like the MA Hoverbike, the single-passenger Aero-X rides like a motorcycle.
Proposed uses for the Aero-X include surveying, search and rescue, border patrol, disaster relief, aerial agricultural, and more.
Aerofex is currently taking $5,000 refundable deposits on the Aero-X. Expected to arrive in 2017, the Aero-X will launch at $85,000 and up, depending on options.
3 Challenges to Passenger Drones
We don’t yet know whether passenger drones will make a splash in the market. However, there is every reason to believe that they could.
For one, drones are no longer a new concept. For the past few years, drone manufacturers have removed or overcome many of the barriers to entry associated with any new product launch, including software and technology development, legal regulations, and safety requirements.
This doesn’t mean that adding passengers to drones is going to be a simple process. Regulations alone could bring product development to a halt. Nonetheless, thanks to the growth in popularity of unmanned drones, the path to success could prove much easier.
Second, the time seems right to bring single-passenger drones to market. As Tesla has shown, battery technology is improving with each passing year. Couple this with the public’s desire to limit fossil fuel use and single-passenger drones could prove to be a winner when compared to cars.
The elephant in the room on whether passenger drones will be successful, not surprisingly, is the price. Early passenger drones will be expensive, but as launches of other consumer products have proven, those high prices won’t so forever.
In other words, within the next two decades, we could be buying passenger drones for just a few thousand dollars (similar to what a new MacBook Pro costs now).
One More Note on Passenger Drones
Back in the 1960s, jetpacks took off as a concept at a time when the United States was gearing up for the Apollo lunar missions. We still don’t have any jetpacks on the consumer market, but there are a handful of enthusiasts who are still trying.
The reasons for this are two-fold. Historically, jet packs have required escaping gas to operate, which can prove dangerous — so much so that water-based jetpacks are growing in popularity. Jetpacks are also difficult to control, expend a lot more fuel, and only move up and down.
Between the two, jetpacks are more exciting, but passenger drones seem like the safer and more efficient bet overall.
It will be interesting to see how passenger drones develop in the coming years. More than likely, we’ll see a lot of prototypes come and go in the next few years. Ultimately, the marketplace will decide which concepts work best. From there, faster, lighter, and less expensive models will fly into our lives, for better or worst.
Would you consider buying a passenger drone? At what price point? Share with us below.
Image Credits: e-volo, by Nikolay Kazakov