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– A glimpse into the future– sky buggies for everyone. Simple controls are an important feature. Now manipulate a lever, release a brake, and you’re off.
PATRICK MCGEE: We’ve always dreamed of personal flying machines, but the post-war enthusiasm hasn’t matched the reality. The Wright Brothers made the world’s first powered flight way back in 1983, but since then, our sky escapes really haven’t changed all that much. Indeed, the sky right now is clear in blue, partly because coronavirus is keeping the planes out of the skies, but mostly because they’re as empty as they’ve always been.
But by 2025, 2030, we may just have dozens, if not hundreds if not indeed thousands of flying objects in the sky. And we really need sophisticated systems to understand how they’re being used, where they’re being used, and to really ensure that this system is safe and secure, reliable, transparent. And you can imagine some of the economic benefits. And a lot of companies have a big stake in this.
– Hey, Doc, you better back up. We don’t have enough road to get up to 88.
– Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
PATRICK MCGEE: A host of visionaries are betting that by the end of this decade, this empty space will be filled with unmanned drone deliveries, flying taxis, hover bikes, and all manner of gravity defying machines we haven’t even dreamt up yet. If anything, the outbreak just goes to show how important those unmanned deliveries can be. It sounds like sci-fi, but that’s sort of the idea of a pandemic.
Just before the virus locked down countries around the world, I visited the City of Angels. I wanted to meet the people who believe that harnessing these guys is an economic necessity– one that can transform cities, speed up logistics, and even save lives.
BEN MARCUS: Air traffic control today is analogue and totally manual. So it’s up to air traffic controllers to tell pilots where to go.
PATRICK MCGEE: Startup, Airmap, is working with governments to create an unmanned traffic management system, promising a completely automated system to bring order to the skies. That means digital invisible highways capable of guiding thousands of crash-free journeys.
BEN MARCUS: The unmanned aircraft traffic management system will allow for drones that have not yet taken off to know the other trajectories of the other drones that are flying around. So immediately prior to take off, a drone can simply tell the unmanned traffic management system where it wants to go, and the system provides a safe and efficient route that is de-conflicted from all previously planned trajectories. But over time, the more efficient and optimal way for these aircraft to navigate will be on planned, but random routes.
PATRICK MCGEE: Since Google launched its self-driving car project in 2009, venture capital has flowed into dozens of autonomous car projects. But Mark Groden believes aerial vehicles are much better placed to take on the problem of traffic congestion. His company, Skyryse, envisions autonomous helicopter taxis.
MARK GRODEN: The ground is so much more laden with obstacles. It’s very rich with obstacles. And the biggest problem for autonomous cars is de-conflicting that space, because you have to identify a bicycle versus a pedestrian, and then make an intelligent decision based upon that. And fortunately for us, you can’t ride your bicycle into the sky, and so there’s not a lot going on up there. And that’s actually a much better application of today’s technologies than automating and making autonomous ground vehicles. And it’s a much stronger value proposition, if achieved.
PATRICK MCGEE: Flying taxis are usually based on electric and vertical takeoff. There are already 68 prototype aerial vehicles in development, according to Transport [INAUDIBLE], backed by the likes of Aston Martin, Hyundai, and Daimler. Skyryse plans to work with these companies. But it has already demonstrated technology that allows present day helicopters to fly autonomously and operate like ride hailing companies. Mr Groden thinks that he can get to market more quickly than rivals by starting with standard helicopters that have already been approved by the FAA.
MARK GRODEN: Yeah, it may sound a little bit utopian, but it is entirely possible with technology that already exists today. So we don’t need new battery technology, we don’t need anything that defies the laws of physics, and we don’t need any new breakthrough discovery. Realising unit economics are at parity, even better than UberX, actually, at parity with the commuter car, according to the IRS, which is $0.53 per passenger mile, is possible with today’s technologies.
– Flying DeLorean?
PATRICK MCGEE: The pace of technological change has been rapid. When Dan Burton was in the US Marine Corps in the early 2000s, a drone cost millions of dollars and took dozens of people to operate. 10 years later, an infantryman without a college education could launch one of his backpack.
After witnessing this development, Mr Burton founded DroneBase, a company that now operates a 60,000 strong pilot network to carry out commercial applications.
DAN BURTON: So what I witnessed was really, basically, the democratisation of the air, where many smaller and smaller units could get access to the air, get data and imagery from the air, and make a better or faster decision based on that data and imagery.
And they’re getting closer to the iPhone level. At this point I know in the Marine Corps at least, they want every squad, which is 15 Marines, to have a drone. And the assistance squad leader, their kind of secondary job is to be the drone operator.
PATRICK MCGEE: Landing pads, right? On skyscrapers and stuff?
Ben Marcus and Cyrus Sigari, childhood best friends, became pilots together and then founded Airmap are taking us on a helicopter tour over LA to show how they imagine the future of the skies.
BEN MARCUS: Pressures and temperatures are now all in the green. That’s good, that’s good.
PATRICK MCGEE: How many helicopters are in the air on a daily basis in Los Angeles?
BEN MARCUS: Well, I can tell you right now in this area, probably four helicopters that are flying as we speak. There are four that landed in this West LA sort of area.
PATRICK MCGEE: What are you sort of envisioning 2025, 2030?
BEN MARCUS: So we see a constrained demand for urban aerial viability that could be tens of thousands of simultaneous flights. Here in Los Angeles alone, about 400,000 people commute an hour to half each way to work every day. So that’s a lot of people who could really benefit from urban aerial mobility.
PATRICK MCGEE: We filmed this during rush hour. And like I said, it was before the lockdown, which dramatically reduced travel and commuting.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what travel will look like in post-corona landscape. But personal transportation could prove more appealing to those more weary of buses and trains. Some may prefer to cut out unnecessary journeys, making more use of the videoconferencing we’ve all become so used to.
BEN MARCUS: There’s a bunch of helicopters flying around here that we haven’t seen. And so spotting air traffic visually isn’t the easiest thing to do, and it doesn’t scale to thousands of aircraft simultaneously flying over a city like Los Angeles. So this is one of the core things that we need to overcome in a more modern, digital, and automated airspace management system.
The first step is what the FAA recently released in a notice of proposed rulemaking called remote identification. So all of these aircraft, whether they are manned or unmanned, need to be in a system that exchanges information about their position and the identity of their operators. That’s critically important in order for us to be able to detect and avoid one another, and also to provide a measure of accountability over level lead to public acceptance by the general public.
PATRICK MCGEE: What’s holding the industry back is not technology, but regulation.
Countries like Rwanda and Ghana had already opened up their airspace to self-flying drones that deliver blood and medicine to remote hospitals. US-based startup, Zipline, is now flying COVID-19 samples from remote areas to get tested in city laboratories. In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration has broad authority governing the skies. At the moment, FAA regulations restrict pilots from flying drones directly over people or beyond their line of sight.
The system Mr Marcus mentioned, remote ID, is akin to having digital licence plates to identify drones in the sky. This could open up cities to drone deliveries. Or we could see the use of drones in a box technology where cell flying aircraft deploy automatically on surveillance trips. For example, to monitor progress at a construction site. A drone that sits in a self-contained box would take off at a particular hour, videotape its journey, and then land back in the box, where it uploads data to cloud and recharges before its next journey.
However, when the FAA proposes for no ID rules, it caused an uproar. The proposal calls for almost all drones to be registered for a fee, and be equipped with both radio and internet connectivity to communicate the location of the drone and the pilot. If a pilot’s location cannot be broadcast, he or she will be limited to flying in a 400 foot radius. Consumer and model airplane enthusiast said this would invade their privacy and could even kill their hobby, while smaller businesses said it was unworkable.
Sky Ladder provides drones for 3D modelling, mapping, and building inspection.
STEVE KATZ: So we specialise in the construction industry, and flying up to 400 feet has a limit as one of the rules, especially if I don’t have internet connection– that’s a deal breaker. And I wouldn’t be able to do certain jobs because of that rule.
– Over the last 10 years, DJI has brought pro-level aerial photography to the masses–
PATRICK MCGEE: The biggest voice to come out against the FAA’s rule is DJI– by far the world’s biggest maker of drones. They warn the proposed regulation would damage innovation.
ADAM LISBERG: You’re not going to have incredible drone on demand services to do all sorts of industrial tasks. You’re not going to have people experimenting with amazing camera shots and movies unless you have a robust amateur market for drones. People need to be able to buy a drone, try it out, find out if they like it, and if they love it, keep digging into it more. And so it’s very important that regulatory systems for drones don’t freeze out people who might just want to go to a park like this and fly.
PATRICK MCGEE: The reality is that these concerns may have to give way as the New World of flying aircraft becomes not just a dream, but a necessity. It may be hard to imagine now, but the ups and downs of mankind are hard to predict. After the dawn of coronavirus, the people I spoke to will be hoping to lift their vision up to reality. These clear blue skies may soon be a quaint memory from past.
– Up, up, up, and away we fly, away we fly, away we fly. In our helicopter high, fly up in the sky.