Apr 16, 2017
By Nicolas Parasie
DUBAI—Transportation authorities here in the largest city in the United Arab Emirates are working on a novel solution for businesspeople stuck in traffic jams: flying, driverless drone taxis that will swoop in and swiftly take them to their destinations.
Dubai is looking at approving use of an autonomous drone that will carry one passenger short distances. The battery-powered flying taxi—built by Chinese drone maker Ehang Inc.—could be available for booking through an app as soon as this year, depending on how tests go, Dubai’s transportation authority says.
The drone taxi has space for one person and a suitcase only. It flies typically at around 60 miles an hour and is linked to a control center on the ground. In case of emergency, the drone will land immediately in the nearest safe space. Dubai’s authorities say that they have already examined the drone prototype and that it would be controlled through 4G mobile internet.
“Eventually, the drone will be the method of transport for human beings,” says Mohammed al-Gergawi, the United Arab Emirates minister of cabinet affairs and the future. “Science fiction is going to happen,” he says.
Testing ground The drone taxi is part of an ambitious effort by Dubai to be on the cutting edge of new transportation technologies, from passenger drones to a transit system that in theory could travel near the speed of sound. The goal is both to improve connectivity and boost the emirate’s growing reputation as a global trade and tourism hub. As Persian Gulf countries facing lower oil revenues struggle to diversify their economies, Dubai hopes to strengthen its credentials as the region’s center for finance, tourism and transportation.
Flying Drone Taxis Could Take Off in Dubai Dubai hopes to have driverless taxi drones flying through its skies as soon as this summer. Its transport authorities plan to have the Chinese-made Ehang 184 ferry individual passengers around the city by July. “You cannot resist the changes that are going to happen in the future,” Mr. Gergawi says. “Either you move and create the future, or it will be imposed on you.”
The city already has the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building; palm-shaped, artificial islands off its coast; and, more recently, a canal that meanders under the city’s main highway. It is constructing the world’s biggest airport and has started work on a new tower that will exceed the Burj Khalifa in height. The drive to attract transportation innovators may represent a a new stage in the emirate’s push to grab part of the future for itself.
“There’s a transition in Dubai from being consumers of innovation to be producers of innovation,” says Hazem Galal, a partner at PwC and the global leader of its consulting business for cities and local governments.
Besides low taxes and an enviable location between East and West, Dubai offers tech companies a business-friendly environment where red tape is limited and regulations can be easily modified for prototypes. “We decided that we are going to be the world’s largest lab,” says Mr. Gergawi.
In addition to drone taxis, the emirate plans to test self-driving vehicles. Tesla Inc., whose chief executive, Elon Musk, is a key backer of autonomous technology, launched its electric cars in Dubai earlier this year. Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, has set a target of making a quarter of domestic transport trips smart and driverless by 2030, which could generate $6 billion a year in savings and economic benefits, Dubai officials say.
Even bigger in scale is the Hyperloop, another vision of Mr. Musk’s. Dubai last year announced a deal with Hyperloop One Inc., a company developing Hyperloop technology, to explore linking Dubai with Abu Dhabi in what would be a 12-minute ride averaging 375 mph in pods through low-pressure tubes. Currently the roughly 75-mile trip takes more than an hour by car. Every city in the Gulf region could eventually be reached in less than an hour if a full network is eventually rolled out, Hyperloop One executives say.
Flying drone taxis in Dubai could be available for booking through an app as soon as this year. “It is an emirate that has a reputation for not only dreaming big but actually making things happen,” says Rob Lloyd, chief executive of Hyperloop One. In a sign of Dubai’s support for the Hyperloop project, its government-controlled global ports operator, DP World, invested $50 million in Hyperloop One.
The Hyperloop project is still years away from transporting its first passengers. The company is working with Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority to explore potential routes and how to integrate it with the emirate’s existing transportation infrastructure, which includes mega-airports, eight-lane highways, a metro and tram system. Costs and financing sources are also still under discussion.
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As a center of innovation, though, Dubai still lags behind places such as Silicon Valley, London and Singapore, says Mr. Galal of PwC. Indeed, Dubai’s pursuit of technology innovations has at times been born out of necessity, to resolve some of the problems it faces. The city has undergone a drastic transformation in the past few decades as its economy and population boomed. But that growth has also coincided with greater traffic congestion and air pollution.
Fanfare and finance Ambitious plans have also hit snags. Some projects announced to much fanfare, such as the world’s largest mall and another set of artificial islands, have suffered delays or were stalled in the absence of financing. A proposed Persian Gulf-wide railway project has been put on hold as well.
In neighboring Abu Dhabi, Masdar City was designed to become the world’s first carbon-neutral city. Plans there also called for a driverless transportation system. The project suffered many delays and has yet to be completed.
Still, Mr. Lloyd of Hyperloop says that Dubai has a good chance of becoming the first location where the Hyperloop will be introduced, and that it will help toward achieving the emirate’s goals.
Says Mr. Lloyd, “No one wants to build a project that is an amusement ride.”