Human World, and Social Progress

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Our Amazing Aerial Future – Air Deliveries and Air Taxis Will Change Our World

Note: The most current version of this post will live at Air Deliveries and Air Taxis, in Chapter 12 of my online book on strategic foresight practice, The Foresight Guide.

Aurora’s EVTOL droneplane (2017)

A fantastic new global mobility solution is now on the horizon with drones (aka “multi-rotor UAVs”) and their less-recognized cousins, droneplanes (aka “fixed- and variable wing EVTOL UAVs” – that’s a mouthful). These technologies are going to increasingly solve our centuries-old problem of urban gridlock, by moving the transportation of growing numbers of goods and people into the third dimension, the air. Don’t believe me? Read on.

In coming decades, these clever new machines will be built into fast, safe, and sustainable air delivery and air taxi networks, on-demand services that can be scaled to arbitrarily high densities in leading cities. So just like we see with pollution, spam, and other technology-created or enabled problems, we can predict urban gridlock will start to subside, hopefully at an accelerating rate, some time after 2030.  Unlike digging under ground, which will go far slower, these air networks can be nearly point-to-point, and their load can increase with demand, with no additional construction costs.

Sperling and Gordon’s Two Billion Cars (2009) is a nice book that sees a bit of the future of transportation. The authors make the case that we need to decarbonize our autos and trucks as soon as we can. There were over a billion cars in the world at the time, and they projected we’d add another billion cars by 2030. Besides explaining the need to decarbonize, they skillfully explore how short-sighted our politicians, auto execs, and the oil industry are with respect to decarbonization innovation. In developed economies like the US, transportation produces nearly 30% of greenhouse gases, and cars and trucks alone cause nearly 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions. So as the developing world gets more and cheaper cars, our transportation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions are going to get worse before they get better.

Sperling and Gordon (2009)

But foresight is a tricky thing, and unless you make it as open as possible, it is easy to miss big parts of the future. Though this book lightly covers electrification, the authors did not recognize how fast electric vehicles would improve, driven by inner space efficiency trends. It also says nothing about autonomous cars, even though they’d been around since 1995, and nothing about on-demand transportation. To be fair, Uber started in March 2009, but the iPhone launched in 2007, and the near-Uber service Taxi Magic began operations in 2008. All three of these solutions, electrification, autonomy (in the air and on the ground), and on-demand services, are great ways to create a much more sustainable transportation network, and I’m probably missing some other general solutions as well (see any? let me know).

Someone should write a followup book, called Two Hundred Million Self-Driving Cars and Drones, that describes the greatly dematerialized (intelligent, autonomous) and densified (miniaturized, efficient) future of urban transportation. Unfortunately, given our current leadership I’d expect another billion of today’s unintelligent, gas-guzzling cars being produced and driven, in the worst case. But the future most of us want and can now see ahead is on-demand autonomous electric cars and drones, in air delivery and air taxi networks. We’ll need a lot less of these vehicles than most of us might initially think, to serve all our leading cities in coming decades.

Why so? First, because we won’t have that many more people to deal with. Human population growth has been negative in our developed countries for decades now, and that’s a very good thing. Good demographers tell us we’ll see the peak of total human population around 8.7 billion circa 2050, give or take a decade. It seems obvious to me that our biological numbers will decline steadily from there, as each of us will increasingly come to see our personal sims, the fastest learning aspects of our identity, as our digital selves, and eventually, our natural successors on Earth.

Second, because unlike cars, which sit unused 95% of the time, such on-demand networks are like trains, with the vehicles being reused continuously, and increasingly intelligently, creating a maximal social and economic benefit to offset the environmental cost of building them. Yes, the increased performance we get from these networks will cause us to use them more than we do today’s delivery and commuting networks. But people can only increase demand so much, because we are people. Our biological needs are sharply finite. The smarter our machines get, the more their transportation needs will dominate, not ours. Once we understand the Race to Inner Space, it’s pretty obvious that tomorrows smart machines won’t be consuming or physically moving their bodies to sightsee, like we do. They’ll have much more interesting and efficient things to do. So as a rough guess, I’d bet annual car and drone production starts decelerating some time mid-century as well. But in the meantime, we can expect an exponential adoption and production ride.

All the Key Air Delivery and Air Taxi Problems are Being Solved Today – This Future is Almost Upon Us

Kitty Hawk Flyer 2 (2017). A descendant of this prototype machine will be self-flying, and used in air taxi services, much faster than most folks realize today.

Today’s drones and droneplanes are noisy, unsafe, non-autonomous, expensive, and range-, speed- and power-limited. But all five of these critical adoption problems are being rapidly solved today. Let’s briefly discuss each of these issues now.

1. Noise. To be allowed in the air in large numbers, package delivery and commuter drones will have to be far less noisy than our current quadrotor drones. Fortunately, the more rotors one adds, and once each rotor can adjust to operate at a slightly different RPM than the others, the quieter drones become. They become even quieter when you enclose the rotors inside a carbon-fiber tube, creating a ducted fan, which we already find on in designs like the Lilium drone today. Looking to the future, the edges of Lilium’s rotor-enclosing tube can be dynamically adjusted by micromotors, to make the noise of the air rushing through them even quieter yet.  NASA has been at the forefront of making quieter drones for several years. We just have to mandate low-decibel designs in our cities, as we will surely do, even before they are in the air in any significant numbers.  Stealth startup Joby Aviation, one of the leaders in the drone race today, wants to make their drones 100X quieter than a helicopter on takeoff and landing, and silent when flying over private residences. That would surely be quiet enough for mass adoption.

Fortunately, sound levels drop 6 dB with every doubling of distance, so we can require our air delivery and taxi drones to fly high enough not to be heard. Unless they are low-noise engineered, most of today’s drones might have to rise above 3,000 feet before finding a virtual lane in the sky. In some urban areas, drones may allowed to fly low over highways, adding to highway noise. But I hope that doesn’t happen. I think we citizens should fight to reduce our current levels of noise pollution. We need to measure and reduce urban noise, not keep adding to it.

Perhaps a generation from now, I expect our better droneplanes will have articulating wings as well as ducted rotors, making them partly like ornithopters. That will allow them to do gliding landings, and flapping takeoffs in their first few hundred feet before turning on their rotors, making them silent even on takeoff and landing in residential and other noise-sensitive areas. That would be an example of bio-inspired design we could look forward to seeing. That kind of of robotics is technically beyond us today, but it surely won’t be in a few more decades.

2. Safety. People have a very negative psychological reaction to things falling out of the sky, and there may be deep evolutionary reasons for this. Some of our worst nightmares are of snakes, spiders, or other things falling from above us. This emotional reaction may be a holdover from our primate ancestry, living in the trees. We obsess over plane accidents versus ground accidents, perhaps due to this evolutionary bias, or perhaps because we view plane accidents as particularly outside of our control, and something that, unlike cars, we can do without. Whatever the cause of this sensitivity, we will need a set of technologies able to quell this reaction as drones increasingly proliferate.

Fortunately, advanced safety solutions exist today, or are on the near-term horizon. Some of these are expensive, but in the best of all worlds, I hope we’ll require them all before we see drones in large numbers flying overhead. First, notice that the more rotors one adds, the safer they become. Multi-rotor design allows drones to have double and triple power system redundancy, with each rotor group running on separate circuits. Each rotor group is like an independent swarm of birds holding you up, and each rotor group needs to be able to auto-land the drone if the others fail. This redundancy is another great example of bio-inspired design.

Until they have wings, and can glide like birds, I think both package and commuter drones should also be required to have plane parachutes that unfold rapidly above the drone (typically via compressed air or solid-fuel rockets) in case of mechanical failure. Companies like Ballistic Recovery Systems are leaders in putting lightweight whole-plane parachutes on small planes. Their home page credits these parachutes with saving 374 lives so far (2017). Watch this 4 min video of an acrobatic plane safely landing after its wing falls off (at 2:20 if you want to get right to the event), if you don’t believe these work. These parachutes can be made very small and light, and I hope they will be required in all future non-winged urban drones, in every country.

Our coming drones also should have an airbag ecosystem that rapidly deploys inside and below the drone, triggered by AI, accelerometers and sonar, a system that is also deployable manually in case of AI failure. Such an ecosystem should protect people in the plane and on the ground if there are system failures below 150 feet, the rough height below which our fastest-deploying parachutes still won’t safely lower passengers or packages in case of electrical or mechanical failure. For commuter drones, you can place airbags on shoulder harnesses, in the cockpit, and below the craft itself, and the benefits multiply the more you have. Energy-dissipating (“stroking”) seats also protect airborne occupants in crashes. Below-helicopter airbags have been tested in Apache military helicopters, and were used on the Mars Pathfinder lander. Again, such airbag ecosystems should be able turn any drone into a “beach ball”, protecting its occupants, and folks on the ground, from lethal decelerations. Though they may initially be expensive both to produce and to safety test, I hope that an advanced airbag ecosystem will be required on coming air taxi drones, and I hope external airbags and parachutes are required for air delivery drones as well.

I hope tomorrow’s commuter drones will also have lidar or millimeter wave radar and sense-and-avoid software (still in development) to allow them all-weather visibility and navigation, so they can operate safely in fog, clouds, and rain, and continually avoid birds and other aircraft. I find it sad that we don’t see radar in almost all of today’s commercial and private planes. Along with sense-and-avoid software, it would allow planes to avoid things like bird strikes, telephone poles, balloons, and other objects hidden in fog, clouds, and rain. Millimeter wave radar has been added to some private helicopters today, so it isn’t a matter of cost, size or weight. Rather, it’s a failure of regulatory vision and leadership.

I don’t know the global statistics for annual average mid-air collisions or near misses. But a ten-year study (1989-1999) of mid-air collisions found an average of 1.5 such collisions over French territory annually, collectively causing forty-two deaths and nine injuries. Extrapolating this, I’d guess that at least twenty mid-air collisions happen around the world every year, and vastly greater numbers of near misses. In the US, the Aviation Safety Reporting System collects reports of near misses, but reporting is of course voluntary and selective. Fortunately, aviation authorities say numbers of both of these are continually declining per passenger mile. But if we are going to add tens of thousands of delivery and commuter drones to the air, I think we need to mandate lidar or radar, and sense-and-avoid software that allows the drone to avoid other objects, both on the ground and in the air. Our software and hardware are certainly up to this safety challenge. We could start by subsidizing sense-and-avoid technology and software advances in today’s consumer and industrial drones.

3. Autonomy. In their most important safety and performance advance, coming drones will have to be self-flying, or acting as a continual backup if humans are flying, so that they can self-fly whenever safety margins are violated by human pilots. The best human-carrying drone designs, in my view, should always allow a passenger the option take over manually at any time. Drone flying can be dead-simple, with a single joystick, as in the human-carrying Volocopter. In practice, however, few passengers might ever do that, preferring to let the system fly itself.

Given the very high rates of human error in piloting today’s automobiles, and the 1.3 million auto fatalities the world presently suffers every year, I hope that we’ll demand near-full automation, equivalent to SAE Autonomy Levels 4 or 5 for automobiles, before we allow many drones the sky. I also hope for much better safety systems to protect folks on the ground. Drones will need onboard collision avoidance that assigns the drone its own virtual lane in the sky, communicating with ground traffic monitoring systems (which are no longer ground traffic “control”), and doing autonomous lane- and space-keeping precisely with other drones.

This self-flying ability, and the ability to keep human pilots from doing unsafe things, has been steadily growing in commercial aviation, and as autonomous cars emerge, driven by hardware and software pioneers like Nvidia, we are going to see it explode in its ability. Visual recognition in 3D in the air is in some ways an easier autonomy problem than it is on the ground, with its constant near-field visual distractions. Tesla has already mostly solved the problem of self-driving automobiles working with human drivers and preventing them from causing accidents, as we see in the Tesla Autopilot. It won’t be long before someone takes this technology to the air.

Even with today’s low autonomy systems, drones and droneplanes are far more able to do precision flying than ordinary planes, which drift uncontrollably tens to hundreds of feet up and down with the wind, a problem that is greatly magnified by bad weather. That little-discussed fact is another reason why drones will be the most popular form factor for urban aerial package delivery and commuting. Conventional planes, airships, and other forms of flight just can’t fly precisely enough, in all types of weather, to be allowed in our urban airspace in any large numbers. Drones and droneplanes are our future.

4. Cost. Early versions of truly safe and fully autonomous drones will surely cost over a hundred thousand dollars, putting them outside the price range of the average consumer. But once these are used in on-demand networks, those costs are easily amortized.

One single-passenger drone should be fast enough that it can easily take five to ten people to and home from work every day, and multi-passenger versions will be even more efficient and affordable. We’re already seeing a few drone designs, like those of Joby Aviation, that carry four passengers. Air taxi commuting cost will start high cost, and be only for rich folks for the first few years, like the first Ubers, the black cars, but it will rapidly drop as adoption scales.

5. Range, Speed, and Power. Today’s battery electric drones only stay in the air for 20-30 minutes, and most of the current designs are only good for lifting two occupants, a driver and a single passenger. But as they follow inner space trends in STEM efficiency and density, lithium-ion batteries have, on average, become 7% more energy dense every year, since first introduced in 1991. That means they double their range per weight every ten years.

One more range doubling should be plenty to cover the 22 mile average round trip distance of the typical commuter, plus an additional safety margin to get back to the droneport and swap batteries. Hydrogen-powered drones promise to have vastly greater range, reducing the need for recharging or battery swaps. Autonomy will eventually eliminate the need for a driver.

Current human-carrying drone designs can fly at 65-80 mph, and droneplanes with ducted fans can fly at up to 180 mph, point-to-point with no congestion. These speeds are already fast enough to be highly useful, and they offer major advances for package delivery and commuting in our gridlocked cities.

In short, we’re off to the races, and these technologies are going to bring huge changes to both our urban and rural environments in coming decades.

Air Deliveries and Air Taxis – A Regulatory Vision

Here are five things I’d like to see US regulators require for commercial use of delivery or commuter drones in our airspace:

  1. Autonomous flight and collision avoidance, with the ability for manual flight when the computer judges it safe (Tesla Autopilot-style)
  2. Whole-drone ballistic parachutes and airbag ecosystems, to protect both people on the ground and in the air.
  3. A low-noise requirement, which will force turbofan, multirotor or multi-RPM design, fast takeoffs and landings, and higher elevation operation.
  4. A 60-minute range requirement, which means gas, gas-electric hybrids or fuel cells today, and in just a few more years, li-ion batteries.
  5. Full-weather visibility (radar and lidar), which improves safety, and offers a redundant orientation system besides computer vision.

Research use should continue to be allowed without such regulations, but the numbers of drones in those cases should be small. These regulations might delay the arrival of commercial drones in the US to at least the mid-2020s, and make it harder for small companies to launch services in the early years. But requiring higher standards is I think the price we should pay to protect this nascent industry as it emerges.

You may disagree with my views, but hopefully this analysis at least helps you better see what is possible. We will decide these issues politically, as always.

Air Deliveries and Air Taxis – Where We Are Today

The Volocopter (“Volo”)

So where are drone science, tech, and regulation today (early 2018)? The Trump Administration has recently allowed US states to draft their own provisional licences for drone delivery experimentation, subject to approval by the FAA, but the regulatory vision for these machines is still far from clear, and doesn’t include all of the five things listed above. Talk to any ordinary person about these futures however, and noise and safety concerns come immediately to mind.

Aurora’s Droneplane (EVTOL)

Human-carrying drone startups like Volocopter, Aurora, eHangKitty Hawk, Lilium, and Joby have made new progress toward the air taxi vision over the last few years. The Volocopter (left) was perhaps the first to travel at 65 miles an hour, using redundant electrical systems, plenty fast enough for urban commuting. Vehicles like Aurora’s droneplane (“EVTOL”) design (picture right) will be able to fly even faster, at least 100 mph, enough to commute from nearby cities.

The German startup Lilium has even built an EVTOL jet (picture and video below), with a max speed of 180 miles per hour. Its 36 redundant electric “jet” (ducted fan) engines are also particularly quiet compared to traditional rotors. They are also claiming a one hour flight range, though I would bet that’s marketing hype, and I’ll believe that once I see it. Take a look at the video below right of their 5 min maiden flight in April 2017. All of these designs, and others we haven’t seen yet, are capable of turning collections of smaller cities into commuter megacities in coming years.

Liliums EVTOL electric “jet” (ducted fan). Design image showing the 36 fans (2017)

Lilium droneplane maiden flight (YouTube, 2 min, 2017)

Besides self-flying ability, one problem none of these companies have yet solved is range. They all use lithium-ion batteries, so most can only stay up for 30 minutes at present. Fortunately, lithium ion energy density (range) has grown 7% a year since 1991, as mentioned earlier, and may continue on that trend for at least another decade as we get increasingly sophisticated in our nanochemistry and nanoengeering.

By the mid-2020s, battery powered drones and droneplanes should have some very impressive range. In the meantime, Hybrid gas-electrics are the most obvious bridge solution, and I think we can expect gas-electric hybrid droneplanes to be the leading designs for the next decade. But hybrids aren’t long-term sustainable. Fortunately, fuel cells offer long flight times already, and can be used sustainably, if we charge them with renewables. We may not subsidize their use and performance development today, but we should if we were being more foresighted.

Ten years from now, in the mid-2020s, a future version of Li-ion should be able to deliver the minimum sixty minute flight time that air taxi networks may need. That is also when I’d expect such networks to be offered commercially in the US. Hopefully, hybrids will start losing out to the greater simplicity and sustainability of battery drones for urban air delivery and taxis around then, though they will surely continue to be used for long range flights. With luck, fuel cells will also get a share of the coming air taxi market at that time, as they offer the longest range sustainable power solution for the foreseeable future. Even so, fuel cells may be reserved for inter-city, rural, and high-performance drones, with batteries winning out in the cities.

Let’s look a bit deeper into fuel cell technology now. The simplest way to store hydrogen for aviation is as a compressed gas, in carbon fiber tanks. These offer about half the range of fossil fuel airplanes. A 2X range improvement, making hydrogen comparable to fossil fuels, can be achieved with cryogenic tanks. See Juan Plaza’s Will Hydrogen Fuel Cells Help Drones Stay in the Air?, Commercial UAV News, 6.5.17 for some recent developments. As R&D progresses, cryogenic tanks may get much more affordable, and increasingly be used for long range applications.

EnergyOr’s Tron H2 Droneplane (EVTOL)

MMC, a Chinese manufacturer of industrial drones, has built HyDrone, a small fuel cell powered drone for industrial and military use. Their two models have a flight time of 2.5 and 4.5 hours, a 3-4X better range than our best current battery drones. In the US, Ballard’s Protonex also makes fuel cell-based for drones, primarily for military applications. As this 2017 whitepaper shows, they presently offer 2-3X better range than the best batteries.

In Canada, EnergyOr is making fuel cells for sale in drones, and droneplanes, including the Tron H2, which does vertical takeoff and landing and has an incredible eight hour flight time, roughly 7X better than our best battery drones. Our US Navy Research Lab has also built the Ion Tiger, a 35-lb, 5-lb payload fuel cell fixed-wing UAV which flew for 26 hours in 2009 using compressed hydrogen fuel tanks, and 48 hours in 2013 using miniature, NRL-developed cryogenic tanks. Again, the longer the range you need, the more fuel cells become the best option.

The Tron H2 (2017, YouTube, 2 min). A long-haul fuel cell droneplane.

Droneplanes for Navy ships and other military, intelligence, disaster, fire, and work environments are a great first-tier application of droneplanes over the next decade. See the video at right of the Tron H2. Platforms like this are being looked at by a number of defense customers today. A small company like EnergyOr is an ideal company to be acquired for defense drone production today, and they could be positioned for package delivery drone production in the early 2020s.

I would predict, and hope, that air delivery drones come ahead of passenger drones by at least three to five years, as the physics, safety, and regulation issues are so much easier to work out for that application. Taxi and delivery drones will be particularly useful in rural and mountainous areas, with bad and indirect roads.

Imagine what an on-demand drone network, first for packages and a few years later for people, will do for the value of mountain and urban real estate presently an hour or more from any big city by car. Hold on to that real estate, friends, if you have any. Your transportation options will start to get a whole lot better about a decade from now, in my estimation.

Droneboxes and Droneports

Drones that deliver people or packages to our homes and offices need places to drop their packages without landing, places to land temporarily, and places be hangared and serviced when not in use. Good generic names for such places might be droneboxes and droneports. Feel free to use these names if you like them, or suggest others. Perhaps a courteous reader will make Wikipedia pages for them as well?

We can envision droneports and droneboxes on the roofs of commercial and apartment buildings, in our residential front, back, and side yards, and in many other locations. The top of a typical residential dronebox may need to be at least seven feet above the ground, higher than dogs can typically jump, and it should be able to protect packages from thieves and bad weather including rain, show, and hail.

Amazon Patent for a Home Delivery Dronebox (2015)

Amazon Patent for a Drone Delivery Hub (2015)

Look at the following two patents Amazon has filed for droneboxes and droneports. I like how bio-inspired they are thinking. The patent at left shows a package-accepting dronebox that is essentially like a flower. It opens up its “petals” at the top when the drone gets above it, it slows down the fall of the package to the bottom, presumably via stiff plastic “hairs” inside, the bottom is presumably accessible via a locked door, and closes its petals after deliver to protect against inclement weather. Such a dronebox will likely have an internal sensor to report when a package is delivered, and some droneboxes may allow drones to land and recharge on their roofs, extending their range.

The accordion-like aspect of this particular design seems both creepy and unnecessary. Most of us might rather have a chimney that doesn’t move, one we can store multiple packages within. The Amazon patent at right shows a “beehive like” droneport they might use as a regional hub, with their warehouse at the bottom, maximizing surface area for drone takeoff and landing from the local distribution center. Again, the bio-inspired design is quite beautiful.

Pan Am Heliport in NYC, 1970. These will return in the 2030s, as Droneports.

As we think of the future of passenger drones, we can hope that progressive countries will ban gas-only drones, requiring gas-electric hybrids at least, with both electric fast chargers and hydrogen filling stations at all the major droneports in the city.

Ideally, our suburban droneports will be at least three stories high, with petal-like sound baffles extending out from the landing pad at the top, so most of the takeoff and landing noise doesn’t reach the ground. Many of our early suburban droneports will likely be office buildings, like the old PanAm heliport in NYC (picture right). But the most space-efficient would be multi-story drone hangars with elevators, allowing long-term parking (of cars and drones both) and easy servicing by onsite mechanics. Such multi-story drone hangers and parking garages will give city dwellers and commuters more places to park their self-driving cars, and the parking capacity needed for high-demand destinations.

Underground automated highways for self-driving electric vehicles, electric subways, and perhaps also Boring Company networks, will eventualy link our urban droneports as well. I wrote a detailed forecast about such underground highways in 2005, and predicted they’d start emerging in our wealthiest cities around 2030. Underground transportation networks will support the largest passenger volumes, but they’ll also be far more expensive and scale far slower than drone networks, which I simply did not see in 2005.

Leading Drone Companies

Who are likely to be the major players in this new industry? Let’s look at just a few of the more obvious contenders.

Amazon Prime Air Drone Prototype (2013)

Amazon has long been making the biggest moves in package delivery drones, an initiative they call Prime Air. Amazon is a company with truly global scale. In 2011, they had 33,000 employees. By the end of 2016, they had 300,000, hiring 100,000 people in that year. They are hiring at least 100,000 more in 2017, mostly for warehouse work. Imagine how much bigger they will get once they figure out package delivery drones. Hold on to your Amazon stock, friend.

Amazon Prime Air Droneplane (2015)

Amazon announced their Prime Air R&D effort with a bang in 2013, and a modest prototype (picture left) initially to much skepticism. Their 2015 design (picture right), able to deliver packages up to five pounds, is greatly improved. It is a fusion of drone and plane that the aviation industry calls an EVTOL. As I’ve said, I prefer the simpler and equally descriptive term droneplane, and recommend it to you. Droneplanes take off and land vertically, but can also fly like planes, so they are particularly fast and efficient for longer distance flight.

Amazon’s current droneplanes are still all electric versus fuel cell, they aren’t quiet, and they can still hurt people by falling from the sky. But they are pursuing fully autonomous flight with “air traffic” like human supervision, and since 2015, the FAA is granting research exemptions for such systems. So they’re making progress.

Uber is the most visibly working toward self-flying commuter drones, in an initiative they call Uber Elevate. They published a whitepaper articulating the value and feasibility of these services in 2016, formed a research partnership with Aurora, and started an inaugural Elevate Summit in 2017, to jump-start this nascent industry. Their first conference had 72 industry speakers on various issues in manufacturing, regulation, and investment around urban commuter drones. See this great video by Dagogo Altraide, Uber’s Electric Flying Taxis, ColdFusion 7.28.2017 (YouTube, 12 mins), for more. Uber has had moral failures and missteps of late, but they seem to be making necessary changes, and I expect they will eventually get through those unfortunate issues and rebound.

Consumers will want on-demand systems, commercial services, and private leasing and ownership as major options, as that competition will drive down the cost of air taxi services as fast as possible. Of each of these, I would expect the on-demand model to support the largest and most affordable daily ridership relatively soon after network launch. The cheaper it becomes for private individuals to own, hangar, and pay for service certification for their drones, the cheaper air taxi services will become for all of us. Blade is already lowering the cost and ease of helicopter commuting in NYC by a factor of four, contracting private helicopter owners to fly others in their helicopters on demand.

So in the first ten years of drone network launch, the cost of a short urban aerial hop might be equivalent to taking an Uber Black today. Maintaining drones should neither be prohibitively expensive for wealthy private individuals nor particularly cheap. Without any research behind this guess, I’d imagine the commuter market might be something like 50/30/20 (on-demand/commercial/private) ten years after it first becomes legal for individuals to fly passengers for hire in any city, but that’s just a hunch. Much depends on cost and reliability.

Boeing is a very foresight-oriented company and a top contender for making people carrying drones. While I was writing the first draft of this piece in 2017 they announced they’d purchased Aurora, aligning them with Uber. I love how convergently business leaders start thinking once certain trends become obvious. Aurora makes not only an EVTOL, they also make Orion, a stratellite platform (we’ll discuss those in another post), and several other defense UAVs. Boeing is another very, very smart company to have in your long term investment portfolio. If I was to bet, I’d predict that Boeing will try to buy Monterey’s Joby Aviation, a stealth startup that has been working in this space for years and that just got a $100M investment from Jet Blue and others. We haven’t seen it yet, but some say their passenger-carrying droneplane is the most advanced yet.

Airbus is also positioning publicly to be a player in the drone delivery and commuting space. They began working with the CAA in Singapore to test drone parcel delivery in 2017, using an autonomous platform called Skyways, on the National University of Singapore campus. Through direct innovation or purchase, like Boeing, they are also likely to be leaders in exploring this space.

Google’s spin out Waymo may also become leaders in in self-flying drone software, and Google-affiliated Kitty Hawk might become a leader. Kitty Hawk is presently avoiding defense, and focusing on the commercial space, which is an interesting but risky strategy. Kitty Hawk’s CEO Sebastian Thrun originally ran Google’s self-driving car project, and they are funded by Google co-founder Larry Page. Commendably, Thrun’s Udacity is offering a nanodegree in Flying Cars and Autonomous Flight, and hoping to get at least 10,000 engineers taking the course. There have been a growing number of such MOOCs for consumer drones in recent years, and they are a great way to train up the next generation of drone engineers.

Will Waymo/Kitty Hawk develop an open drone navigation software platform something like Android, able to be used and partly customized by a wide range of drone manufacturers for either drone delivery or commuting applications? I would doubt it over the next ten years. Given the high safety concern and the quality control problems with that approach, no big company will pursue this initially, and small companies and startups likely don’t have the capital to make it work. I think we can expect proprietary navigation platforms at least for the first decade of commercial drone operation. But proprietary players may eventually be forced to go open with their tools, if the open source community is able to develop good software for, say, drone package delivery, and get it past the regulators. I really hope they do that, as I love open approaches, but I wouldn’t expect it soon.

China’s DJI Phantom Drone (2017). DJI currently leads the global drone market.

We may also see Alibaba, Amazon’s major global competitor, get into drones. An obvious strategy would be Alibaba, or an AI-oriented Chinese company like Baidu, linking with or buying DJI, the private Chinese company presently dominating the drone market. Ideally, I’d love to see DJI go public and get into battery and fuel cell powered, safe, quiet, and autonomous package-delivery drones, which they sell to a vast range of companies. They could launch their first human-carrying drones a few years after that. Such a strategy might give DJI the greatest value and scale, but it would involve more risk, so they may not go that route.

BYD (Build Your Dreams) is another impressive Chinese company that might well get into this space. Its founder, chemist Wang Chuanfu, has been called the “Elon Musk of China.” Like Musk, Chaunfu is a global leader in Li-ion batteries, solar panels, and electric vehicles. They are the world’s largest producer of electric cars, buses, forklifts, and other electrics, and have been profitable since 2002. Tesla has yet to turn a profit. It would be fantastic to see BYD get into electric drone production, and they’d be a real competitor to DJI.

I think the global future of drones, as they are so beneficial, deserves an open IP, publicly funded, global innovation approach. Open source development and testing will make progress and is highly desirable, but it is probably unrealistic to expect it to to be commercially and legally viable in the first decade of commercial drones. Amazon, Google/Waymo, Uber, and Boeing are all US companies I’d love to see as leaders in this race, but it would also be good to see Chinese companies like DJI, BYD, Alibaba, Baidu, and of course Europe’s Airbus, also in the competition. But we need them to play fair as well. China’s leading solar manufacturers dropped world prices by 80% between 2008-2013, which made them globally dominant, but they had extensive government support in the process. America should have offered the same level of support to our solar innovators, but we didn’t.

If future drone leadership is totally dominated by China, or by any other non-US company aided by government support, that will be mud on the faces of US politicians in both parties who don’t believe smart government subsidies aid US economic growth and innovation leadership. We innovated many of these drone ideas, and the race is ours to lose at present. As with solar panels, electric cars, fuel cells, and other future-critical technologies, smart US government support and subsidies are sorely needed in the production and sale of advanced drones, which are a clearly a coming transformative technology.  In my view, America sorely needs government policy with drones that is neither right wing or left wing, but up wing, or progress-oriented, advancing priorities like the Five Goals and Ten Values. We need to be proactive, not reactive, to the trends and futures in front of us.

Yes, Flying Cars are Finally in View

Taylor Aerocar (1949). Six were built. One is still flying, and driving, today 🙂

Convair Model 118 (1947). A plastic car body, intended to attach to a rentable airframe at your local airport.

If the US gets our first commercial air taxis in the mid-2020s, which I’d argue is roughly when can expect Level 1-3, human-driven, partial-autonomy droneplanes, that would give Americans our first real flying cars exactly one hundred years after the Ford Flivver (1926), a personal plane that was sold for storage in ordinary garages by Henry Ford, our most famous early flying car visionary.

Level 4 and 5 autonomy, which will finally reach the Jetson’s flying-car-in-the-garage vision, may take another decade, perhaps arriving in the mid-2030’s, if I were to hazard a guess today. A mid-2020’s date for our first commercial air taxis would be seventy nine years after the Convair Model 118 (1947, picture left) and seventy seven years after the Taylor Aerocar (1949, picture right). For a neat video, see What Happened to Flying Cars?, Second Thought, 3.28.17 (YouTube, 7 min), for some of the early history of this perennial idea.

Several older, more conservative aerospace experts, like Jim Harris, in We won’t be flying in electric planes for at least 15 years, CNBC, 10.13,17, also argue we won’t see full autonomy until the 2030’s. Though some of today’s drone and AI entrepreneurs would likely disagree, I’m inclined to agree with Harris, but only for the full autonomy version. Partial autonomy could arrive much faster, if we have the motivation and good strategy.

So the next time someone says to you, as has been said to me, in a sarcastic tone “Where’s my flying car, mr/ms. futurist?” You can tell them it’s finally in view. You can also tell them advances in nanotech (sustainable power), infotech (self-flying), safety engineering and noise engineering were key hurdles that had to be overcome before we had a clean, safe, and affordable solution for millions of commuters. Some futuristic ideas take time!

To Learn More: If you want to follow or join this emerging industry, two good conferences are AUVSI’s (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) XPONENTIAL conference, which has been going since 2012 (it was previously called Unmanned Systems) and the Uber Elevate Summit, started in 2017. AVUSI is the largest unmanned systems and robotics community, at 7,500 members, and their conference has about 8,000 participants. It is mostly defense and industry oriented. Elevate is much smaller, but its very helpfully focused on the commuter drone vision. There a number of other good drone conferences, but none to my knowledge that focus on delivery drones. Someone should start one soon!

Foresight, Smart Agents, and Mediated Reality

My keynote (23 mins) on the Near-Term Future of Immersion for VRLA Summer Expo. It intros professional foresight, and new developments in Deep Learning (Natural Intelligence), Smart Agents & Mediated Reality.

It was supposed to be a 30 min talk, but the showrunner mistakenly thought I had only 20 mins, so I didn’t get into my VR and AR slides. Drats!

The full slides, with VR and AR as well, are here:

What an amazing and disruptive world we’re co-creating!

Your Personal Sim: Part 1 — Your Attention Please

siri-ios-7A Multi-Part Series, Posted on Wednesdays on Medium

Part 1 — Your Attention Please: A New World Is Almost Upon Us

Summary (tl;dr)

  • This series will explore the five- to twenty-year future of smart agents and the knowledge bases they use and build. These may be the most socially important forms of AI that will emerge in the coming generation.
  • As we’ve seen in the headlines about deep learning since 2012, the AIs are presently awaking all around us, whether we want them to or not. They are also coming in our image — in their neural form and function — again whether we want them to or not. To paraphrase futurist Stewart Brand, “We are gaining superpowers, so we better get good at using them.”
  • A new kind of software agent called a personal sim is the most empowering and intimate form of AI on the horizon. We’ll soon be using sims that model our interests, goals, and values in their knowledge bases, and which act as our assistants and digital interfaces to the world.
  • In their early years we’ll likely think of sims as bright but slightly autistic children, much better at many tasks than we are, but still unschooled and unwise in many ways. At the same time, the knowledge bases our sims use will be full of errors, and won’t be sufficiently open at first.
  • The takeaway from this series will be that we will need to build and raise our sims and their knowledge bases well, with love and care, as they will be central to how billions of us live our lives in the 2020s and beyond.


For the article and comments, see Your Personal Sim: Part 1 on Medium, thanks.


John Smart is a futurist exploring the intersection of technology and culture from universal, acceleration, and evo-devo-based perspectives. These posts are excerpted from his new 15 chapter book on the foresight profession, The Foresight Guide. The Guide will posted free online, as a permanent, page-commentable blog, on June 30th at To be reminded when it goes online, leave your email address at

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