Is it a spoiler or a saviour?
Imagine this: after a long week at work, you decide to go for a walk on Saturday morning at the closest mountain or beach to your city with your family or friends. You have just arrived at a wonderful spot and you prepare your pic-nic, with the only sound surrounding you being the wind blowing from the sea or flowing among the trees. Suddenly, an akward flying object with four propellers and a disturbing noise enters your zone of tranquility and spoils the whole thing.
Then imagine this: you are in the same spot, having good time, eating your sandwich and drinking your wine when suddenly, your kid that has decided to climb a tree, falls and breaks his leg. Your car is parked 10 minutes on foot away and the closest hospital is half an hour away by car. What would you say if this akward flying object would turn out to be a flying ambulance coming on spot and offering immediate medical help?
Offering reliable medical transport
Based on the above example with your kid’s broken leg, you can only start to imagine the perspective of using drones in the medical field. From carrying medical equipment to hospitals, other medical centres like today’s Covid-19 vaccination centres and remote areas to offering immediate medical help to people in need, drones’ contribution to a more effective healthcare system seems more than certain.
An EU funded programme named SAFIR-Med*, is underway, focusing on exactly this area of implementation. It is a U-space large-scale innovation project that demonstrates how drones can be used to support Europe’s healthcare system to accelerate the adoption of drones into the healthcare system in a safe, sustainable and socially acceptable way. By operational exercises in real urban environment and large-scale simulations, the partners of this project will try to find solutions to safety and security issues attached to the complicated aerial environment of modern cities – tall buildings, cranes, cultural monuments, cables, other aircrafts, etc. Its vision is to achieve safe, sustainable, socially accepted and socially beneficial urban air mobility.
Forget about traffic lights?
Urban centers across the globe are struggling to come to terms with the rising vehicle numbers and the resulting congestion, especially during peak traffic hours. According to research conducted by Bernstein Firm some years ago, the global number of cars on the road will nearly double by 2040, with their number reaching the two billion by the same time. When drone taxis become widely commercialized, they will definitely ease the traffic burden on city roads. They will usher in a nimble form of intracity travel, transporting people on the shortest possible route between two locations. An air taxi designed by Joby Aviation and funded by Toyota promises to help a billion people save more than an hour in commuting time every day.
“If they are priced correctly, air taxis may be able to democratize travel in cities where there is no public transport alternative or where the congestion and size of the urban area (Sao Paulo is the classic example) are so great,” says Dominic Perry, an aviation journalist and deputy editor of Flight International.
Yes, they can also carry passengers
By this, we mean doctors, firemen, paramedics, rescuers, explorers, or simple professionals who want to get at their appointment on time and tourists who want to experience how the world looks from above. This cutting edge technology carries the Chinese expertise and innovative thinking. Its name is Ehang 216 Drone Taxi and it is designed by Ehang, an Autonomous Aerial Vehicle Technology company frοm China. It is all electric powered thus eco-friendly (it can be charged by 220V or 380V power supply in 1 hour at the fastest) and energy efficient, and it can transport human passengers providing a low-altitude short-and-medium-haul transportation solution for the future. It mainly aspires to make our cities smarter, by reducing transportation time and avoiding traffic congestions. Having a compact design, the Ehang doesn’t take up much space in the sky or even while parked.
What about Ehang’s security?
Last but not least, the factor of security. This drone taxi carries a technology of autonomous flight which eliminates the possibility of failure or malfunction caused by man-made errors. Without any concern about controlling or operating the aircraft, the passengers can just sit and enjoy the journey. Flight routes will be surveyed in advance to preset multiple feasible plans for the user. It uses 4G/5G as the high-speed wireless transmission channel to communication smoothly with the command & control center, thus enabling remote control of the aircraft and real-time transmission of flight data. The redundancy design of backups for all major flight components, together with a built-in fail-safe system in the flight control system which evaluates the health condition of the aircraft in real-time, are factors that ensure safety. In case of emergency, the command & control center has the ability to step in to ensure the safety of passengers and aircraft to the greatest extent.
Τhe company states that hundreds of tests have taken place, including static test, load ground test, load flight test, durability test, reliability test, environmental test, anti-interference test, etc. under all kinds of inclement environments such as high/low temperature, high humidity, salt spray, typhoon, rainstorm. Ehang has been granted with the certificate of AS9100D International Aerospace & Aviation Quality Management System Standard.
Volocraft’s top priority
According to the German company, Volocopter’s safety is their number one priority.
“We engineer our aircraft with multiple redundancies and reduce moving parts in order to decrease the likelihood of failures. All of our eVTOLs and systems are thus designed to meet the highest standards of the aviation authorities.”, we read in the company’s blog.
Oliver Reinhardt, head of airworthiness certification and quality at Volocopter, says that
Volocopter’s approach to safety involves multiple layers of both redundancy and dissimilarity. Every critical system has a backup system, and each backup system uses a different kind of hardware running different software written in a different programming language, all produced and validated by different companies.
Wisk Aeros’ safety net
Wisk Aero, a company based in Mountain View, Calif., and backed by Boeing and Kitty Hawk Corp, says that safety is based around designing its aircraft with simple and highly redundant systems with no single points of failure.
According to Jim Tighe, chief technology officer at Wisk, this is one of the advantages that eVTOLs have over traditional aircraft—compared to piston or turbine engines, electric motors are very simple. This element allows the aircraft to handle failures in a way that’s not possible with mechanical systems, as far fewer moving parts and easy electric power distribution allow individual motors to compensate for one another when necessary.
Joby Aviation says electric is super cool
Electricity is what makes the difference here. Greg Bowles, head of government and regulatory affairs for Joby Aviation, says: “Electric power is what’s super cool here because it lets us do the kinds of things that mechanical systems just can’t do.”
Joby’s guarantees safety by demonstrating a six propeller design of its eVTOL. The aircraft’s propellers can tilt to provide vertical or horizontal thrust while its wings support gliding to an emergency landing. The propellers are powered by dual-wound motors, essentially two separate electric motors combined into one for redundancy, so that even if a failure of two motors happens during hover, the aircraft loses at most one propeller, which it can handle safely.
The competition is fierce
It is not surprising that from large aviation companies and the automotive industry up to venture-backed start-ups and Uber, are rushing to grab a foothold in this nascent market. According to EU, within 20 years, the European drone sector is expected to directly employ more than 100,000 people and have an economic impact exceeding €10 billion per year, mainly in services. According to a recent Morgan Stanley Research study, the market for flying cars, now known as electric air taxis, should continue to mature during this decade, soaring to $1.5 trillion globally by 2040.
The air taxi designed by Joby Aviation we already mentioned will carry four passengers plus a pilot, will travel more than 150 miles on a single charge, will be 100 times quieter than conventional aircraft during takeoff and landing, and is near silent in flyover. Uber partnered with Hyundai to design an electrically powered “personal air vehicle,” which will have the capability of carrying four passengers on trips of up to 60 miles at speeds reaching 180 mph. They will be able to cruise at altitudes up to 2,000 ft. Other air taxis made by Boeing, Airbus, a German start-up called Lilium Aviation, KittyHawk, Surefly, the German company Volocopter, SkyDrive in Japan, Vertical Aerospace in the UK, and Jaunt Air Mobility and Beta Technologies in the US, and other big or smaller “players” have already begun to pour money researching and designing their prototype drone taxis.
What’s in the works?
Some months ago, German drone taxi startup Lilium announced plans to build a 56,000-square-foot transportation hub – named vertiport – in Florida. Lilium believes its drone taxi service will be operational by 2025, offering short trips in the Orlando area with its electric five-seater Lilium Jet.
Hyundai’s Urban Air Mobility Division recently announced that it is partnering with the U.K. to develop a site for testing the use of taxi drones – a place where taxi drones can land and take off. The site will be called Air One, and it will be built by Urban Air Port, a U.K.-based company focused on creating infrastructure to support UAM (Urban Air Mobility: refers generally to large unmanned vehicles used primarily as taxi drones or for cargo drone delivery in urban and suburban areas). The same company plans to build 200 such sites by 2026. Hyundai on the other hand, plans to launch its taxi drone commercially by 2028.
Another huge project named AMU-LED, funded be the EU, just started testing taxi drones and other UAM. The project features 17 different companies, including Boeing, Airbus, and Ehang. Over the next two years, member companies will conduct UAM tests in Spain, the U.K., and the Netherlands. The final goal of the project is to complete over 100 hours of tests flights, demonstrating the reliability of UAM technology for: air taxis, cargo transport, delivery of goods and medical equipment, inspection of infrastructures, police surveillance, and emergency services support.
In the battle against Covid-19
Drone usage during the pandemic offers many benefits – speed of delivery, extended transportation network reach to the lastmile, limited physical contact, reduced risk of transmission –
so no wonder why many countries in the world have already deployed them for delivery and transportation purposes. Some other countries – like China, Spain, South Korea and others – also have used drones for aerial spraying of disinfectants in public outdoor spaces to contain the spread of the virus, though scientific evidence suggests that this application has little to no evidence for efficiency and effectiveness. What’s more, drones have been used for public space monitoring – video surveillance and broadcasting of voice message – triggering criticism from human rights activists.
The Alabama case
In Alabama, the state senate recently contracted with a company called Draganfly to use its robotics technology to detect potentially infected people entering government buildings and direct them to rapid COVID-19 testing if needed. This is done by a smart detecting system which takes contactless temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate readings. In addition to monitoring people for signs of infection, the Draganfly drones can actively disinfect areas by flying over them and spraying a disinfectant. It’s been used at stadiums and other large venues to sterilize the area before an event.
The virus killing drones
Many other companies have developed technologies on disinfecting methods using drones. Lucid Drone Technologies has developed a drone that can clean 200,000 square feet per hour, which is at least 20 times faster than having a human walk around trying to wipe everything down. Another company, Digital Aerolus use UV radiation to destroy the virus in indoor places like schools where spraying large amounts of liquid is not practical. Their Aertos 120-UVC drone has several UV-C light emitters that would give a human a nasty sunburn in just a few minutes, but hopefully would also be enough to kill the COVID-19 virus.
Vaccine delivery in rural Scottish villages
Ten drones controlled from a mobile operations centre in West Scotland will carry Covid-19 test samples, medicine, essential personal protective equipment (PPE) and Covid-19 testing kits to rural areas. This comes after two weeks of successful trials of a drone delivery carried out by Skyports, the first operator to receive permission by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to carry diagnostic specimens by drone. It has been found that these drones can significantly increase the speed of transport, reduce journey times from up to 36 hours for a road and ferry journey to 15 mins, while also increasing the frequency of pick- ups.
Delivering test onboard
In December 2020, for the first time ever, a drone was used to deliver test for Covid-19 to a ship in Elefsina area in Greece, covering 2 miles in 3 minutes while with a vessel it would need 20 minutes. The company said vaccines delivery would follow at a later stage.