It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s... Autonomous Flying?!

Rob Bell

Issue 9, March 2018

Could “flying economy” soon become “flying autonomously”? In principle, it seems simple enough to scale-up a drone, but the reality is vastly different.

It was recently announced that the first successful manned drone flights have taken place. Footage emerged from EHang Inc, with their fully autonomous EHang 184 drone, which can carry a passenger up to 100kg for a 23-minute flight at a speed of 100kph. That could solve the morning commute for many Aussies, that’s for sure (as long as you could charge it on the roof of your building, or wherever you manage to land).

I’ve long wondered why large supersized drones that are fully autonomous and don’t require pilot training, haven’t been given more interest. It checks off several requirements for safe airborne transit, most notably the fact that humans are fairly poor judges in 2D space in a car, let alone in 3D space! Personally, I trust the world-class pilots who’ve completed years of training, to get me safely from one country to another, but let’s face it, a “quick training program” for pilots of one-person drones is never going to be a good thing. Besides - then you can enjoy the view or read the paper, much the same as autonomous cars will enable us to do one day too. They’ll most likely be more adept at getting us safely from A to B, while being aware of all things around them, compensating for weather elements, never getting tired, and they’ll never stop evolving.

That said... do we want flying cars? Any futuristic Sci-Fi movie makes it look like we’re just destined for traffic problems in the sky too... I’m not sure we’re quite headed there. In 3D space there’s infinitely more room than on a road. The same volume of flying cars can much more easily transit the same area without traffic challenges since they’re not restricted to lanes or altitude, like cars are. But there are some challenges we could expect too.


With anything that flies, the dangers of any type of failure are exaggerated.

Empty batteries? Crash and burn.

Guidance system malfunction? Crash and burn.

Wind gusts above threshold? Crash and burn.

You get the drift, and we haven’t even considered what you’re crashing and burning into which, let’s face it, is likely to be a metropolitan area. There’s no “pull over on the shoulder and call roadside assistance” when you’re hovering in mid-air! At least, there’s unlikely to be with an untrained occupant. And it’d be impossible to interject if it’s designed to be fully autonomous, even if you’re a Top Gun pilot since there’s either no controls, or you don’t know how to use what’s there anyway.

Of course, redundancy is a relatively straight forward thing to implement. Over-powered engines with the ability to fly safely if half of them have failed, a reserve battery system, dual guidance systems - there is really nothing that can’t be built without catering for redundancy, in virtually all scenarios. Of course, even the world’s most redundant systems can glitch from time to time. If Facebook being offline for three minutes makes news, imagine what a GPS interruption could do to autonomous networks that rely on the technology!


The inevitable introduction of this technology, just as all rapid evolutions in technology, will no doubt bring with it some challenges. These things are likely to be electric, so could potentially be cleaner than traditional vehicles (presuming they can be charged from renewable sources, of course), but just as things become cost-effective and start to be mainstream, the very nature of that event means they’re everywhere.

Noise of propellers chopping through the air, constant shadows on the ground as all these aerial vehicles fly past. It could all quickly lead to a sea of noise and wind in our cities and suburbs. While people complain that electric cars are too quiet, electric flying cars are no such thing. They’re noisy beasts. Even a 100mm drone in the sky makes a buzz like a mosquito on a hot night... you can hear it over wind and rain, and whatever other noise is around. Though admittedly, an electric option isn’t nearly as noisy as a turbine propulsion system, such as what’s used in a jet or helicopter. This fact won’t go away for as long as we’re using propellers or turbines for vertical thrust, and not some sort of anti-gravity-hyper-drive technology that can push us into the sky with a whisper. That part IS still Sci-Fi for now.


While these technologies have a way to go, and will continue to present new challenges along the way, I’m so excited to see where they’re headed because the problems will, undoubtedly, be overcome with time. As we move closer every day to a world with autonomous transport, whether it’s land-bound or in the sky, I look forward to watching it evolve.