Three challenges stand in the way of filling the sky with drones and flying cars.
The first two — money and technology — are being tackled with zeal. Huge sums are flowing into aerial vehicle start-ups; Joby Aviation, for example, raised a staggering $590m for its vision of flying taxis in December. Meanwhile, almost 70 prototypes are in development, with backing from the likes of Toyota, Hyundai and Daimler.
Mark Groden, chief executive of SkyRyse, whose system can fully automate helicopter flights, said it was “entirely possible” to offer low-cost taxi flights “with technology that already exists today”.
The third challenge is harder: how should countries regulate their airspace so that vast fleets of drones and flying vehicles can operate safely?
In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration does not have the resources to oversee the sector. Today, 15,000 air traffic controllers manage 45,000 daily flights in the US. But such an analogue system cannot scale up to handle millions of unmanned flights.
Instead, the FAA is working with private companies to develop a new unmanned traffic management system. One of the leading companies it is working with is Airmap, an LA-based start-up backed by Airbus, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Sony, Baidu and others.
Airmap’s system would allow any aerial vehicle to know the location of anything flying nearby and to broadcast its own co-ordinates, trajectory and speed before it even leaves the ground.
“Immediately prior to take-off, 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,” said Ben Marcus, Airmap’s chairman.
At least 20 other companies have also partnered with the FAA to open up airspace. These include GE-owned AiRXOS as well as Kittyhawk.io and SkyGrid — each backed by Boeing.
But for this to become a reality the FAA needs to first lay down a framework of “digital licence plates” for all unmanned aircraft. Known as “Remote ID”, this would pave the way for aerial vehicles to fly beyond the line of sight of pilots, near airports and over people — which are all prohibited today.
The framework would allow construction sites, for instance, to make use of emerging “drone-in-a-box” technology to programme self-flying aircraft for daily surveillance trips. “Today the skies are basically empty, so the potential is virtually limitless,” Mr Marcus said.
A precursor programme known as Laanc, or low altitude authorisation and notification capability, has already shown the demand, said Dan Burton, chief executive of DroneBase, which provides drone pilots for businesses.
Before Laanc, DroneBase had to decline 40 per cent of requests because it took up to 90 days to apply for authorisation to fly in large swaths of airspace. Laanc automated the process and instantly issued permits. “Now we say no to probably less than 1 per cent of requests,” Mr Burton said.
But while everyone agrees that some sort of Remote ID rules are necessary, the FAA’s specific proposal was widely considered to be too onerous by drone and model aeroplane hobbyists, whose collective displeasure saw nearly 30,000 responses to a consultation process that ends on March 2.
The FAA wants virtually all aerial vehicles to be individually registered, for a fee, and be equipped with both radio and internet connectivity to communicate its location and that of the pilot. Anyone unable to meet these criteria would be restricted to specific flying sites designated by the FAA.
DJI, by far the world’s biggest maker of drones, called the FAA’s proposal “deeply flawed” and warned it would be “complex, expensive, and intrusive” for its customers.
Sally French, a drones enthusiast known as The Drone Girl, said the biggest problem with the FAA proposal was that it required drones to communicate via an internet connection, because places which lack cellular towers were often the areas where drones could have the most positive impact on people’s lives.
“If you live in a rural area, need your EpiPen shot and the closest hospital is two hours away, it’s a matter of life and death — a drone could get to you far more efficiently,” she said.
Indeed, California group Zipline has become the world’s largest delivery drone company and operates in Rwanda and Ghana, where local regulations allow for self-flying drones. Since 2016, Zipline has delivered more than 30,000 packages of blood and medical supplies to remote hospitals using drones.
The FAA is now under pressure to appease hobbyists, perhaps by allowing them to use a “broadcast” Remote ID that makes use of drone’s antenna for sending electronic signals to communicate limited information to authorities such as law enforcement.
DJI hopes the solution is a standard in which commercial drones are tracked by the FAA but where hobbyists can fly freely.
When the FAA has reached a solution, it will lay the framework for a whole world of flying vehicles well beyond drones, said Mr Marcus.
“Once [drones are] operating in an automated way for some period of time, then we can have enough trust to put people in these giant drones that we call electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft — and you can fly to work in those.”