The other sort of drone


I’ll go out on a limb and predict that passenger-carrying drones will be in commercial use before driverless cars. Now, driverless cars will almost certainly be ferrying passengers from parking lots to theme parks, from railroad stations to metro stations, etc. in the very near future. Driverless mini-buses will be amongst us very soon. But as far as point to point transportation of individuals, drones will beat the driverless car.

Autonomous land vehicles have to understand quite a few difficult things. Pickup points and destinations, efficient routes, stop signs and lights, speed limits, etc. But all those are easy and are largely already done. The hurdle that cars can’t leap consists of understanding, predicting and reacting to the somewhat erratic behavior of we humans–whether we’re in another car, on a bike or wandering around on foot, driverless cars struggle to understand what we’re doing. They will continue to struggle for some time.

The easiest way not to deal with humans is to get above it all. And that’s what passenger drones do. Once they have dealt with that not falling down and crashing stuff, the rest is an order of magnitude easier than what faces driverless cars.

After all, 3 dimensional atmospheres offer more flexibility than roads. And there are relatively few aircraft in the skies at any one time compared to the percentage of the 2 billion cars in the world that are getting in your way at rush hour. The rules of the road are actually fairly simple when you’re flying above the road–stay on the right hand side and turn left at one altitude and right at another. North south traffic flies at 750 meters altitude, East west at 1000. Use that GPS and stay in touch with Skynet, or whatever the new low altitude traffic control system will be labeled.

There still is that falling down and crashing stuff to contend with, but we do have a century’s worth of practice at getting better at that. The other problem will be battery life, and someone will make a good living swapping batteries out of drones at rest stops and turnaround points.

Air taxis and passenger drones could be in our skies right now if we wanted. Most countries are taking a wait and see approach with regards to regulation and setting up a three dimensional traffic grid. But the technology is already in place.

Those tinkering with self-driving cars are focusing on the wrong part of the problem. They can never make the cars as perfect as an alert, well-trained driver, which is the standard that will be set for them. The key to their success will be redefining or reclaiming the roads, to divorce autonomous traffic from that which is human-guided. That will take a lot of time and a lot of money. Air travel will be cheaper.

Cars and airplanes hit the stage at almost the same time and for the same reason–improved efficiencies in internal combustion engines could push a four-wheeled vehicle and get a plane off the ground. And a new era was born.

Time for another new era. Unlike the last one, air transport will get out of the gate before autonomous land vehicles. And it will be fun.

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  1. ” They can never make the cars as perfect as an alert, well-trained driver,”

    They only have to make them better than a visually-challenged deaf granny to sell them to every boomer whose Mum really shouldn’t be driving any more. Few people of any stripe meet the standard above. Bad drivers far outnumber good ones and at least the driverless cars can find their way around, don’t get distracted, don’t text and drive, don’t drink and have a degree of all-round situational awareness that can’t be matched by humans at all.

    Or is this just prompted by Fuller’s aversion to bots?

  2. Without doubt. Aircraft have only become relatively safe because the flying of them has been progressively handed over to the aircraft itself ( & the air traffic control systems) rather than the human pilot. Humans are just not very good a flying aircraft. Ask any pilot. First thing you’re told. Use the bloody instruments.

    • Fuller proposes some kind of super-drone. No doubt multiple fans, maybe shrouded maybe not, electric-powered (multiple motors, or gear drives, we must eliminate any risk from single-point failures). That is a very inefficient layout. It works for small drones which are not carrying people but it does not easily scale up. And then there’s certification. There are no man-carrying vehicles of that type now and certifying authorities don’t like new stuff. Let’s just see one get certified before we make plans.

  3. Air taxis and passenger drones could be in our skies right now if we wanted. Most countries are taking a wait and see approach with regards to regulation and setting up a three dimensional traffic grid. But the technology is already in place.

    Nowhere close. What you’re describing is an unmanned helicopter, and anyone who knows anything about helicopters would tell you that, unlike planes, they are unreliable pieces of complex machinery which have a habit of dropping out of the sky at an alarming rate, even if they are operated and maintained by an industry with money to burn. I don’t know if helicopters even have autopilots, let alone the capability to autorotate if something goes wrong.

    Fixed-wing aircraft yes, they could be pilotless pretty much right away. Helicopters? Different beast altogether, I’m afraid.

    • Helicopters do have autopilots. Anti-sub helos had auto-hover in the 60s. They can all auto-rotate but they don’t have a much higher accident rate than equivalent fixed-wing although operating close to trees and obstacles will have an effect.

      (In a previous life I was a helo mechanic.)

        • There are full-size drone helicopters using turbine/single-rotor setups. They had a thing called Drone Anti-Submarine helicopter -DASH- on USN destroyers fifty years ago. They were big enough to carry a homing torpedo out to a sub contact. I think there are other uses now. But nothing helo or fixed-wing carries people without a pilot.

          • Were these drones autonomous or remote controlled? There’d be a big difference.

            The other thing to consider is how many man-hours on the ground are expended to keep helicopters safely in the air versus fixed-wing. Would you happen to know the ratio?

        • You think what a helicopter pilot actually does, Tim. He manages the various controls & interprets the instruments to ensure the aircraft has the correct vector & attitude in three dimensions. Where it’s actually going is an afterthought. If you can connect the instruments to the controls, that’s about 95% of flying a helicopter dealt with.
          Like I said above, humans aren’t really very good at this stuff. The sensory equipment isn’t designed for it. A lot of flying is learning to ignore what your senses are telling you & interpreting what the instruments are showing the aircraft is actually doing.

          • Oh I know what they do, I’ve been to work in them enough times. I also know a fair few pilots. A lot of them tell stories about having to do things they weren’t expected to. By contrast, the couple of airline pilots have little by way of stories that don’t involve air hostesses.

  4. “North south traffic flies at 750 meters altitude, East west at 1000.”

    Current rules are that each quadrant is separated by 250ft, so aircraft on reciprocal vectors at the same flight level will have a separation of 500ft.

  5. No the old drones were not autonomous but it would be human-directed rather than fully human-piloted.

    Fuller need not worry about quadrant rules or separation. Whatever system were adopted would define those rules according to available tech. Couldn’t have any humans in there making their own mistakes though. To me the traffic aspect is not a problem it’s the intractable nature of upscaling drones like current small types. Physical laws are not so easy to repeal. I’m working on instinct now I admit, but I can’t see them being at all efficient or certifiable. A better expert than me (I?) is required, but again, there is no man-carrying aircraft like a radio shack drone, electric multi-rotor, and there’s probably a reason for that.

  6. The essence of Tom Fuller’s brilliant insight is that up in the wide blue yonder, clever machines will be separated from erratic humans. This sounds perfectly legit. Until one wonders why there will be no human-piloted drones up there. Because of course there will be, lots and loads and multitudes of them. Nice try, Tom.

  7. You ever tried it, Tim?

    Nope, but I read Chickenhawk, which explains it well. I also have a US air force helicopter training course manual which goes into considerable detail of the physics involved. Complicated doesn’t even begin to describe it. It was this document which explains why helicopters don’t fly very fast, among other things.

    • Read the same book. The part where he’s getting an overloaded machine across fence surrounding a minefield by flying in circles to gain lift is a good example of the aerodynamics of rotary wing aircraft. Worth reading in conjunction with Harold G Moore’s “We Were Soldiers Once..” to get the picture of what was happening on the ground.