The Volocopter saw its first tethered passenger flight during CES 2018. (Image credit: Volocopter)


German drone manufacturer Volocopter recently demonstrated its first manned flight at this year’s CES, of course, it was tethered and indoors but it’s still a milestone never the less. With the onset of autonomous vehicles, it was only a matter of time before autonomous drones transitioned into pilotless taxis set to enter into service sooner than we might think.


The Volocopter flight was only the latest to test fly with passengers in what looks to be a race between several companies vying to be the first to enter service. Ehang, Airbus, Competitor Workhouse, Passenger Drone, Terrafugia, Lilium, AeroMobile, Bell Helicopter, Kitty Hawk and Cartivator Project (and more) are all looking to fly passengers locally and compete to be one of the top transportation services, and airspace is starting to look pretty crowded.


Passenger Drone looks to hit the skies by 2019 after FAA and EASA certification. (Image credit: Passenger Drone)


The question begs, when are we likely to see these taxi drones enter into service? With most of those companies listed previously, it looks like within the next two to five years. In an article from GeekWire, Peter Delco of Passenger Drone said the company hopes to get FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and EASA (European Aviation Safety Administration) certification this year and make the drone commercially available by 2019. Ehang is right behind them according to a December article from CNBC who quoted co-founder Derrick Xiong as saying his company would become profitable in the “next two years for sure,” suggesting the drone would be on the market at that time.


The FAA’s rules for drones do not yet exist for those with passengers. (Image credit: FAA)


Great, now that we have somewhat of an expected timeframe for these drone taxis, we’re still left with another problem of great importance- no air traffic control agencies have yet to work out the rules of drone flight, at least not beyond the person or company controlling them. For example- the FAA has rules governing airplanes that take off and land at airports, drones, on the other hand, can begin and end their flight anywhere, a nightmare for air traffic controllers. Not to mention there are no pilots and therefore no rules for direct communication.


Taxi drones still need a way to not only communicate with one another but with ATCs as well, and there is no mesh network capable of doing so at this point even at low altitudes where drones will are governed to fly. The FAA has rules governing private use of small drones for recreation use and those for small UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems), but none for manned flight at this point.


The EASA’s are nearly identical- low-flight, line of sight (LOS) and only in specific areas nowhere near airports. There are no rules in place yet for passengers flying in unmanned drones as well. These issues will be the leading factors in determining when these craft will be in service and neither the infrastructure nor regulations are in place or on the close horizon for that matter, which could push service back a decade or more. Only time will tell.


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