Season 1 / The flying car

Episode 2 - Can drones revive the flying car?

As we saw last week, none of the flying cars developed during the twentieth century was able to reach the stage of production or large-scale commercialisation. At once bad cars and bad planes, they would require unthinkable infrastructure, cost far too much to produce and didn’t correspond to any real demand. For a time, they may have excited generations of inventors, journalists and adventurers in pursuit of absolute freedom, but they were now consigned to the history books. Only a handful of prototypes, sometimes actually functional, occasionally emerged from R&D labs at manufacturers or start-ups. But all it really takes is to look up at the sky and you’ll notice there isn’t a single flying car. What you will notice, though, is that as of a few years, small pilot-less and passenger-less objects have become a much more visible presence.

These objects, as we all know, are drones, those odd machines that often drop off small gifts before flying out over your garden. “They can be divided into two categories, the MultiCopters – generally equipped with at least four propeller engines, easy to handle but with very little autonomy – and wing-body craft that resemble fully-fledged aircraft that can travel longer distances thanks to the energy saved by gliding through the air”, explains Philippe Boyadjis, president of the Fédération Professionnelle du Drone Civil and head of a drone-pilot training school. Most famous for their ‘leisure’ version that has seen several tech-obsessed dads film holiday clips of rather questionable quality, drones have become omnipresent these days. Professionally, they’ve been used largely in construction and cinema, but also agriculture, security, defence and surveillance of the railways. As for the transport of people, that’s a pretty remote prospect right now.

“The issue is being talked about a lot all over the world, but is in reality quite far off. Because there’s quite a big difference flying a drone that weighs a few kilos with no one on board and another with a heavy human on board. There are all sorts of technological and regulatory problems to tackle”, continues Philippe Boyadjis. He adds: “The two areas are in fact linked, as regulation on the subject, which is European as of 2021, categorises drone activity by their level of danger. The open category applies to low-risk activities, including leisure, the specialised category essentially brings together professional uses with moderate risk, and the certification category, the requirements of which are very demanding, could apply to the transport of people and dangerous goods.”

But while the EU does refer to the people-carrying use of drones, we won’t see them being used to ferry commuters around Paris’s Haussmannian boulevards or the towers of the City of London for a while yet. “The constraints around drone construction are similar to those for classic aviation, and will require a significant amount of investment to several years’ worth of testing and approval”, says Boyadjis. “To start with, only the very privileged would have access to such a personal vehicle.” It’s a remark that harks back to the very early days of the flying car, which was viewed in similarly elitist terms.

At this point, the only real credible scenario is one where the drone wouldn’t be a personal car, so much as a taxi or shuttle service. Moving from base to base, according to predetermined routes, it could have a pilot on board, be piloted remotely or be controlled entirely electronically. “Whether you’re talking about a taxi or a personal vehicle, low-level travel wouldn’t take place with an air-traffic controller but as a UTM (Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management), and be completely digitised. Equipment on the ground would capture the circulation of drones in real time, and control their routes and flight conditions”, says Philippe Boyadjis. He adds that a test flight along these lines, under special exemptions, will be run by Volocopter’s VoloCity during the Paris Olympic Games in 2024.

This could test whether such a mode of transport would prove acceptable to the wider public. Will city dwellers really want to have drones pass beneath their windows and above their heads? Will it become a new source of sound pollution for our already-very-noisy city centres? Philippe Boyadjis says that manufacturers are taking this into consideration, and that it will also be necessary to set out what exactly these drones can be used for and reassure people that they won’t be used to take indiscreet photos. What’s more, will citizens tolerate seeing the ultra-rich fly above them in the sky? For Bernard Jullien, an expert in economics at the University of Bordeaux who specialises in the automobile industry, it’s very much not a given: “Autonomous flying taxis could be justified if they were a means of public transport, but if the prices were hiked up, like those motorbike taxis that avoid traffic jams, it wouldn’t be a priority for the powers that be. Not to mention the fact that it would constitute a use of public space by very rich private individuals, which wouldn’t prove very popular these days”. So while it may technically be possible to turn drones into flying cars, it’s looking pretty unlikely that will actually happen.

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