The other sort of drone


I’ll go out on a limb and predict that passenger-carrying drones will be in commercial use before driverless cars. Now, driverless cars will almost certainly be ferrying passengers from parking lots to theme parks, from railroad stations to metro stations, etc. in the very near future. Driverless mini-buses will be amongst us very soon. But as far as point to point transportation of individuals, drones will beat the driverless car.

Autonomous land vehicles have to understand quite a few difficult things. Pickup points and destinations, efficient routes, stop signs and lights, speed limits, etc. But all those are easy and are largely already done. The hurdle that cars can’t leap consists of understanding, predicting and reacting to the somewhat erratic behavior of we humans–whether we’re in another car, on a bike or wandering around on foot, driverless cars struggle to understand what we’re doing. They will continue to struggle for some time.

The easiest way not to deal with humans is to get above it all. And that’s what passenger drones do. Once they have dealt with that not falling down and crashing stuff, the rest is an order of magnitude easier than what faces driverless cars.

After all, 3 dimensional atmospheres offer more flexibility than roads. And there are relatively few aircraft in the skies at any one time compared to the percentage of the 2 billion cars in the world that are getting in your way at rush hour. The rules of the road are actually fairly simple when you’re flying above the road–stay on the right hand side and turn left at one altitude and right at another. North south traffic flies at 750 meters altitude, East west at 1000. Use that GPS and stay in touch with Skynet, or whatever the new low altitude traffic control system will be labeled.

There still is that falling down and crashing stuff to contend with, but we do have a century’s worth of practice at getting better at that. The other problem will be battery life, and someone will make a good living swapping batteries out of drones at rest stops and turnaround points.

Air taxis and passenger drones could be in our skies right now if we wanted. Most countries are taking a wait and see approach with regards to regulation and setting up a three dimensional traffic grid. But the technology is already in place.

Those tinkering with self-driving cars are focusing on the wrong part of the problem. They can never make the cars as perfect as an alert, well-trained driver, which is the standard that will be set for them. The key to their success will be redefining or reclaiming the roads, to divorce autonomous traffic from that which is human-guided. That will take a lot of time and a lot of money. Air travel will be cheaper.

Cars and airplanes hit the stage at almost the same time and for the same reason–improved efficiencies in internal combustion engines could push a four-wheeled vehicle and get a plane off the ground. And a new era was born.

Time for another new era. Unlike the last one, air transport will get out of the gate before autonomous land vehicles. And it will be fun.