Boeing is testing prototypes for passenger drone taxis, as flying cars and “urban air mobility” come closer to reality

A century ago, Glenn Curtiss unveiled the Autoplane, a flying car that could barely get off the ground. Now, Bloomberg article reported that Boeing – the company that ultimately inherited the aircraft manufacturing division of Curtiss’ old company – is testing prototypes of the drone air taxi.

“Real prototype vehicles are being built right now. So the technology is very doable,” said CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who believes the era of flying urban vehicles is coming faster than most people expect.

Drone aerial taxis and cargo-hauling UAVs could be the next big thing for aerospace companies like Boeing. Muilenburg is devising what he believes could become the “rules of the road” for three-dimensional highways.

According to him, the next decade could witness armadas of autonomous craft flitting over city streets. Such a drastic development would be propelled by the anger of consumers stuck in congested roads, big investments by interested companies, and advances in artificial intelligence and autonomy. (Related: China’s “megadrone” is world’s first autonomous aerial vehicle, carries passengers at 80 mph during test flights.)

Safety issues delaying the advent of flying cars and drone traffic

Muilenburg is not the only one who believes in the accelerated development of a new transportation ecosystem. A Deloitte report predicted the debut of electric passenger drones by 2020, and the next decade could see true flying cars that could drive on roads or launch from airports.

Even NASA has taken time off from its investigation of the rarefied cosmos to look at the closer-to-Earth concept of “Urban Air Mobility.”

But before any of these concepts can truly take off, regulators like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must resolve safety issues such as managing airborne traffic alongside conventional vehicle movement.

Boeing and other manufacturers, meanwhile, need to devise ways to keep their drones from hitting skyscrapers, actual airplanes, birds, personal drones spying on celebrities, and other unmanned air vehicles.

Today’s personal drones usually fly within the line of sight of their operators. Truly autonomous operation would require advanced artificial intelligence and sensors.

Muilenburg welcomes the challenge of integrating technologies such as sense-and-avoid systems to ensure safe urban air mobility.

“We are making investments there. The autonomous car ecosystem is making investments there,” he said in an interview.

Boeing investing in cargo and passenger drones

An aerospace engineer, Muilenburg became CEO of Boeing in 2015. Under his leadership, the company has increased the number of advanced aircraft in its roster, spurred the development of hybrid-electric propulsion and other technologies, and invested in digital design tools and 3D printers.

Last year, Boeing acquired Aurora Flight Sciences, a research company that has been building autonomous vehicles for almost 30 years. Aurora’s latest project is the eVTOL, a two-seater drone that Uber Technologies Inc. will use for its Elevate ride-share taxi service.

Uber Elevate will turn rooftops into “vertiports” where eVTOL self-flying taxis can pick up and drop off Uber ride-share passengers. Once the FAA grants the necessary clearance, Aurora will start flight tests for the eVTOL in Dallas and Dubai.

This January, Boeing presented the prototype of a transport drone that could deliver 500-pound cargoes to destinations as far as 20 miles. The new multi-copter was developed by the company’s Phantomworks unit in three months.

Whereas eVTOL is a flying taxi, the Phantomworks drone is touted as an air pick-up truck.

Boeing’s venture capital arm HorizonX is also hard at work. One of its acquisitions is Near Earth Autonomy, whose sensors are so good that an autonomous drone could avoid trees and alter its path without relying on GPS navigation.

Glenn Curtiss would probably be proud of the Autoplane’s upcoming descendants, even if they are all unmanned.

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