Will Passenger Drones Finally Grant Us Access to Flying Cars?

Could the skies be filled with private flying vehicles sooner rather than later?

Despite the promise of flying cars for generations, we have yet to recognize that dream. As it stands, the closest we can really get is having a private plane -- and even that requires either a pilot or extensive training. Then there is the hassle of landing, take offs and storage. But passenger drones could change all of that in the very near future.

While previous attempts have tried to turn cars into airplanes (or vice versa), passenger drones are different. They are basically scaled up versions of the drones you see flying around everywhere today. But the all important best part is that you can theoretically hop on one and fly around with it!

Passenger drones are incredibly close to retail production readiness. 

As the technology becomes more perfected, you are sure to hear more about passenger drones going forward. We took a look at the state of the art and tried to answer a few of the big questions.

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons, isnoop

What are passenger drones?

It is always best to start with the basics, so let's try to properly define these futuristic machines. First of all, we won't be referring to them much as "flying cars." Though that might be an accurate synonym, it evokes a different, less impressive, type of vehicle. Flying cars have failed in many ways over the years. But the primary problem seems to consistently be the undue compromise they require from drivers -- or pilots. And that was part of the problem. You previously had to be qualified to fly a plane in order to operate a flying car. 

That might make sense, of course. But it certainly limits the number of people who would want to buy one. They often required lengthy runways for takeoff and landing. For all intents and purposes, these were barely cars and barely planes. Now we have new technology and an eagerness of firms competing to be the first to produce passenger drones. The result, it seems, could be access to the skies far sooner than many thought possible.

What sets them apart from previous flying cars is the way they address those earlier issues. For starters, they take of and land vertically, eradicating the need for access to a runway. Perhaps most importantly, though, pilots could be considered optional equipment in the new breed of passenger drones. Companies are working toward the completion of self driving passenger drones. Like the best autonomous cars on the road today, passenger drones promise a future of hands free operation. 

How do they work?

The emerging segment is full of ideas. Like many new technologies and arts, passenger drones in development vary widely. Some, like the Terrafugia TF X, rely on more traditional features. It builds on those basics with incredible new advancements. A gas powered and electric hybrid engine promises a 500 mile range for autonomous flight. Geely, which owns Volvo, bought Massachusetts based Terrafugia in 2017. The TF X is based on the Transition, set to go on sale next year. The vehicle is notable for its folding wings and a propeller on back. Test flights are ongoing and appear promising. Designers say the TF X model has a top speed of nearly 200 miles per hour and can carry four adults. It will take of and land vertically, more like a helicopter than an airplane.

Others are prioritizing flight far more than ground travel. Volocopter is preparing prototypes of it autonomous taxi, which promises to revolutionize the industry. Its 18 rotor design has been flying in test mode since 2016. A promising flight in Dubai the next year showcased its autonomous abilities. That flight did not carry any occupants, but signaled a clear sign it was close to completion. And chip making company Intel is interested in the company's future. Volocopter treated Intel's CEO to a exhibition flight in 2017. In that case, though, the Volocopter was being piloted remotely by a ground pilot.

What can they do?

Depending on their purpose, propeller drones can accomplish a variety of goals. Some can be used to gain entry into places that would otherwise be inaccessible. Whether by natural disaster, war or just remoteness, passenger drones can provide unparalleled air access. They can also revolutionize the travel industry.

Just like Uber changed the taxi industry on the software side, passenger drones could do the same with hardware. These machines could give the power of the skies to everyday folks. That means whether you're traveling around town or across the country, you might not need a car or plane.

But before realizing what they can do, there are a few things passenger drones must do. First and foremost, that will require a renewed look at the strict laws about air travel. With these craft aimed more toward shorter trips, it will be hard for them to comply with some existing rules. In particular, electric powered passenger drones do not currently have the sufficient power reserve. With only about a half hour range in total for some models, they are far short of the half hour reserve required.

Who are they for?

At this point in the evolution of drones, you might think they are primarily the playthings of hobbyists. With drones buzzing treetops in any given park or neighborhood, that is an understandable guess. But even today drones are being used for some pretty incredible purposes. Whether delivering products or necessities to remote locations or capturing unparalleled video, drones get it done.

Of course, at this point in the process there is another requirement for would be owners of passenger drones. You need to have enough cash. Passenger drones will not start cheap. Estimates indicate the first crop of these machines will top $200,000 and will go up from there. 

Finally, at least for now, you will need some authorization to fly these machines. They are not likely to be fully autonomous when the first ones hit the market. So before you start shopping, make sure you will be able to operate your new drone. 

But prices and restrictions are likely to fall as technology improves and competition continues to flourish. So if you are interested in flying your own drone around town, it might require a bit of a wait. But like all good things, your patience will likely be handsomely rewarded.

What are some passenger drone projects in the works?

One of the most popular and promising passenger drones in development is the Ehang. The China based drone maker has staged several successful demonstrations and test flights. Among the challenges it has reportedly met is flying through a storm. It has flown more than 80 miles per hour and at an altitude of nearly 1,000 feet.

In addition to the companies and designs we have already mentioned, there a several smaller competitors. Everyone involved in the process hopes to stake a claim in what promises to be a huge emerging market. In the meantime, though, anyone successful in making passenger drones will face additional headaches.

There are several significant wrinkles in the process. Officials are considering the implications for air traffic control, for instance. There is also a problem concerning how to classify the new mode of transportation. In Volocopter's case, the company hopes to find a specific classification working to its benefit. As a 'light sports aircraft,' the European Aviation Safety Agency would require less pilot training. 

The issue surrounding power supply also promises to be a stumbling block for some drone makers. And companies also have to consider collision avoidance systems that will probably be required. These systems do not yet exist, experts say, but developers are working on the technology. Other safety equipment, likely including an emergency parachute, present their own unique challenges. 

What are some design differences?

The approaches and designs of other companies are similarly varied. JetBlue Airways and Toyota have expressed interest in an American company called Joby Aviation. Lilium is showing off its progress with electric thrust propulsion like that seen in jet engines.

Some of the world's wealthiest entrepreneurs have invested. This proves how seriously the free market is taking this new frontier. Google co-founder Larry Page made a financial commitment to a number of projects including the Kitty Hawk Flyer. That design provides a sitting position like a bicycle. Other major flight related firms are also very interested in the new technology. Among the other companies invested are Bell Helicopters, Boeing and Airbus.

What does the future hold for passenger drones?

Despite the hurdles, progress continues to take place at a breakneck speed. Designers are testing new models on a regular basis. Regulators are responding positively to many of the requests for testing. As with all of the hurdles so far, backers say passenger drones will clear the legal test when the time comes.

Taking a look at the progress of the past few years is an indication that they might be right. Passenger drones can take off and land vertically. In the next few years, you and your neighbors might have a drone of your own in front of your home. Or if you don't own one, autonomous passenger drones could represent the future of transit. Calling on a taxi and getting to your destination could theoretically be done without human interaction.

What are the uses?

Just like any revolution in the transportation sector, proponents say the goal is increased efficiency. That could mean getting to where you are going faster. Around town, cutting out the middle man (otherwise known as a driver) could save time. It could also potentially make transportation cheaper. These could also be one of the answers in humanity's fight against climate change. By putting more electric passenger drones in they skies, we might reduce pollution overall. And taking some of the cars off of the streets will make it a bit easier on those left driving.

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ben Smith

Ultimately, proponents hope passenger drones will provide a convenience solution, too. The current crop of test models include manual overrides. In the future, however, designers hope to convince skeptical investors that autonomy is the way to go. This will allow passengers to sit back and relax as they are piloted through the sky to their destination. The same theory is playing out in passenger cars across the luxury automotive industry. All of the current evidence indicates the same trend is under way where passenger drones are concerned. 

Don't want to pilot your own drone? Can't wait until passenger drones are on the market? 

If you answered yes to both questions, you are in luck. The fact is, passenger drones are built largely on the technology that exists in the commercial market. You can find an array of incredible devices that go far beyond any typical radio controlled vehicle. We have selected some of our favorites that you can buy right now on Amazon.

1. DJI Phantom 4 PRO PLUS Drone Quadcopter Bundle Kit

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If you are looking for one of the most powerful drones on the market, the Phantom makes a good case. Not only that, it comes with a ton of accessories. This thing is ready to go right out of the box. And features including a touch screen display on the remote control are among the best in the industry. There are incredible safety features to protect your craft from unintended crashes. You can take breathtaking photos with the on board 20 megapixel camera. Whether you want to capture still images or video, you really can't go wrong with this option.

2. Parrot Bebop Quadcopter Drone with Sky Controller Bundle

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Credit: Amazon

The Parrot Bebop Quadcopter drone is another solid option for newcomers to the drone market. It provides great, responsive control via its two joysticks. There is also a user friendly docking station for your smart device or phone. But is comes with a 14 megapixel camera on board. With it, you can capture wide angle, or fish eye images showing a large landscape. Capture video and image with a 180 degree range of vision. Plus there is a GPS system so you will never have to worry about losing it in unfamiliar territory. Coordinate it all with an included Free Flight Pro app to help you get the most out of your drone.

3. Yuneec TYPHOON H RTF Drone

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Credit: Amazon

Innovative technology helps to set this drone apart from the competition. The Yuneec Typhoon H RTF drone uses Intel Realsense technology that makes operation a breeze. It can navigate around obstacles all by itself with on board features. This program allows it to avoid collisions in one direction even when filming in another. We like the bundle that comes with extra batteries and propellers along with a custom backpack. You also receive a high speed memory card, cleaning cloth and a one year warranty.

We are still years away from looking up to skies filled with passenger drones. 

How many years that will be, however, remains to be seen. Experts in technology, mechanics and aviation are working hard to perfect this technology. And the models currently flying in tests are showing plenty of promise. There are a lot of promising uses, but there seem to be as many potential hurdles. 

We hope we have answered some of your questions about this new frontier in flying cars. If there are any other questions you still have, leave them in the comments section below. And share this article with your friends who love drones.

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