Would you ride a drone to work?

21 February 2017

Interview with 

Peter Cowley

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Passenger drone

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Dubai announced trials this week of a drone with a difference - it’s designed to carry a person around! It’s scheduled to begin operating in July. But how will it work, and is this the future of travel? Techspert Peter Cowley spoke to Kat Arney about how this drone would work.

Peter - Well it is, obviously, bigger than the ones you’ve seen. You can actually get vertical takeoff drones effectively using propellers that will carry over 200 kilos now so all it’s to do with is the amount of power. Effectively this drone is a helicopter, isn’t it? And helicopters can carry very much more than that. This drone will, apparently carry 100 kilos for 23 minutes at about 60/70 miles an hour and then, after a 2 hour charge, can do it again. So certainly, there is the engineering capability to build these.

Kat - So the next big question, obviously, is this sounds like the commuter solution of choice. Who would actually pilot this thing and how does it not crash presumably if there’s other drones around?

Peter - Exactly, yes. In fact, other people are working on ones with pilots but, of course, the whole point of this one is that there isn’t a pilot so you don’t need to know how to fly. The idea is it’s autonomous so that it takes off from a certain point programmed into a map and it lands somewhere else. Apparently you can press a button to cause an emergency hover but, of course, that would be frightening just sitting there.

Kat - Getting stuck on a ferris wheel’s bad enough.

Peter - Apparently there’s a sensor so if something goes wrong they’ll take it over but, otherwise, it’s automatic. Like any device, whether it’s autonomous car which is coming up, there’ll be loads and loads of sensors avoiding buildings. It’s actually easier in many ways to be safe in three dimension than it is two dimensions because it’s a lot less cluttered.

Kat - So you can go up and over any problems that you see in your way?

Peter - Correct. That’s the idea exactly.

Kat - I guess this is building on the robotic transport we have now. There are tube lines in London that are, effectively, drive themselves. Not that many people know that.

Peter - Yes, that’s right. The operator there is just opening the doors say on the Dockland Light Railway. You still need a human on there. The Gatwick and Stansted expresses are driverless completely but, of course, that’s a very short line. There was actually, a few years ago, a twenty seater jet flew 500 miles in the UK with the pilot on the ground. But, in this case, it’s autonomous.

Kat - The really big question is: is this safe and also, is it legal, but is it safe?

Peter - Well the legal bit - who knows. I had a quick check of the Dubai rules and they’re pretty similar to the UK and US rules which means you do need a pilot. Is it safe? Apparently they’ve got eight propellers and they say that four’s enough - who knows. And, in fact, I’ve looked on various websites and I can’t find one where they’re demonstrating it with a human inside it. Would I fly in it? Probably not from this Chinese company but if one of the big - say BMW or something - produced one two or three years after people have been using it, I’m sure I would.

Kat - The thing is that we see these incredible ideas. Amazon are going to start delivering things that you’ve ordered online. There are now food delivery drones that will go round at street level. Is any of this really practical or this just a marketing stunt?

Peter - No. In this case this is just probably marketing this first one, but it’s definitely the future. There’s no doubt we will end up with flying vehicles doing things, whether it’s delivering parcels, pizzas, or people really. So yes, there’s a whole load of legislative changes, a whole load of societal changes that people will accept it but, give it a few years and they will gradually come in. If you move forward a decade or two, I’m sure we’ll have the future science fiction films that we’ve seen for many years starting to appear - those sort of vehicles.

Kat - This is the sort of thing that we’ve talked before on the programme about when we've talked about cyber security, the internet of things, that there is a problem with the legislation not keeping up with the technology. Are people in transport departments in government really starting to think seriously about this?

Peter - They are, all over the place. Some of the states are more advanced than other ones and I suspect Dubai because it’s very, very advanced. They’ve got off the reliance on oil over the last 30 years or so. Everybody’s working on this. Of course there's some push back and there's only going to be the early adopters who’ll use it but there is a lot of discussion. The big one, of course, is artificial intelligence and robots. How is that going to affect our roles in life? How are we going to occupy our time in 30 years time if it’s all being done by a soft or a hardware robot?

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