In 2016, Chinese drone manufacturer EHang introduced the first passenger drone—Ehang 184—at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Subsequently, at CES 2018, US technology major Intel and German drone manufacturer Volocopter announced their partnership to ideate and manufacture passenger drones. Jan Stumpf, the chief of architecture for Intel’s drone group, stated, “What Intel sees in this technology is an enabling of a whole new market, with different segments and different partners...Volocopter is of course now our biggest and most important one (partner)."
In 2017, the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority essentially put faith in the capabilities of Ehang 184 and Volocopter and revealed its ambitious plans to introduce drone taxis in Dubai. To begin with, the drone taxis would carry only one person (not weighing more than 100kg) at a time, but the long-term plans involve making it more accessible and people friendly with a focus on increasing seating capacity, speed, safety and travel distance. Various other entities such as Uber, Urban Aeronautics and Airbus Alpha One are reportedly betting on the ability of drones to carry passengers and are working on making the use of passenger drones a reality.
While there are numerous questions that need to be answered on the viability and immediate technical feasibility of deploying drones for human transportation, the possibilities that passenger drones present are worth exploring.
Passenger drones are primarily fully autonomous electric drones that will fly passengers to their destination of choice. Passengers simply have to feed the desired location into the system computer. These drones represent the possibility of easing traffic congestion and pollution. It certainly sounds a touch far-fetched to envisage a transport system, no less a public transport system, that will involve such an imaginative use of airspace, but it may not be as unrealistic as it sounds.
Over the period of a few decades, drones have evolved significantly. The shape, size and the possible uses of drones are being continuously rethought and re-imagined. In view of the rapid evolution of drone technology, it may not be a big surprise if drones in the near future develop the ability to safely carry human beings autonomously. The challenge, in fact, may lie as much in our ability to catalyse, develop and ultimately design an effective regulatory framework for passenger drones as on the technological innovation front.
To begin with, catalysing any deployment of passenger drones will require creating an appropriate environment for research, innovation and testing rapidly evolving drone technology. This would perhaps involve combining incentives—financial or otherwise—for promoting more research on drones and adopting a regulatory sandbox approach which will allow companies to test their drones in tightly controlled conditions. Any such regulatory approach will need to be meticulously designed to encourage innovation and at the same time avoid any unnecessary costs to humans or property.
Subsequently, a more radical step would involve evaluating the design and structure of our public transport systems—their failures, costs, the purposes that they seek to achieve and to what extent can passenger drones replace or complement them, if at all. This is, of course, no mean task and involves not only realigning and re-imagining our legal and regulatory architecture but also rethinking the use of airspace and creating an overarching vision of the role that technology can and should play in improving public transport systems.
Currently, India’s regulatory framework is not friendly towards drone operators. While the directorate general of civil aviation has released a draft set of regulations, the regulatory design of autonomous passenger drones has not been addressed in the draft regulations.
Cutting-edge technologies such as drones need more regulatory and legal attention. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently addressed the 2018 World Government Summit in Dubai, which focuses on issues of futurism, technology and innovation. In his speech, Modi noted that, “Our (India’s) developmental ambitions is that...we not only aim to achieve excellence but rather, we aspire to take on a leadership role and be at the forefront of cutting-edge technology." It is important that such statements are backed with concrete regulatory initiatives and legal changes, else they risk sounding like platitudes.
India should look at exploring the potential that the testing and deployment of cutting-edge manned and autonomous passenger drones represent in the near future. Whether the technology is scalable to replicate a public transport system is a matter of conjecture at this point. However, the likelihood of autonomous passenger drones becoming a reality is certainly not farfetched given that some elements of the technology already exist and are in use in different spheres.
In our view, a forward-looking vision and policy to facilitate the use of passenger drones, even if it is on a small scale to begin with, is certainly worth exploring given the immense potential. Drones are already a transformative technology and the use of drones for human transport is likely to further open an exciting new frontier.
It may, in fact, be worth exploring this development as an exception where the lawmakers and their policies take the lead instead of playing catch up with the technology, as is often the case.
Rav Pratap Singh is a senior resident fellow, and Samraat Basu a research fellow, at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org