Sky-high in Dubai if cars can fly

Flying cars have been the stuff of science fiction and fantasy for decades, but diligent engineers might finally have overcome the hurdles that have kept the idea grounded.

Reports from The New York Times and elsewhere say flying car projects are now a reality in downtown Dubai, a city known for its groundbreaking innovation in green technologies and transportation.

The Times cited test runs by local officials of a Chinese drone called Ehang 184, claiming the United Arab Emirates will “spare no effort to launch” these autonomous, one-person vehicles.

The Ehang, which is auto-piloted and directed by a central command technology, has a range of 31 miles on one battery and a top speed of 100 mph. Many key safety features are built in, such as emergency landing protocols, to help lower all sorts of risks -- risks that until now have been major obstacles to this type of transportation.

Scientists are also looking at energy-harvesting technologies that would help these types of "passenger drones" get fueled directly by the sun.

Dubai has made big advancements in autonomous vehicles in recent years, including self-driving buses patrolling downtown neighborhoods of the city. Also in the news recently is word of Tesla entering the UAE market, inspiring visions of new and different types of green, autonomous cars in the future.

But the innovation represented by the passenger drone, or flying car, is an entirely different story. The notion that UAE citizens will be able to take to the sky presents all kinds of new and exciting possibilities, as well as creating some fears and concerns.

The Gulf News Journal spoke with Harry Keller, president of Smart Science, about some of the ramifications of these pilot projects. Smart Science is a website that offers "experiential" science education. Keller has a doctorate in chemistry from Columbia University.

“It's been a hard thing to do for a long time.” Keller said, referring to attempts to get cars in the air. “One of the problems is human drivers -- to have computers driving them instead of people is a big step forward.”

The electric design of the vehicles, he said, helps solve the fuel issue, and the short-haul nature of most trips around Dubai works with the fairly limited range of the vehicle. He also noted that engineers have limited the vehicles to single-passenger capacity instead of trying to engineer something like an electric air-bus.

In general, Keller said, this forward-thinking form of transportation seems like one more plank in the UAE's effort to make its economy one of the most diverse and modern in the world.

“It seems like the Emirates are out to show that they're at the forefront of everything,” Keller said.

Keller also talked about stability designs in the vehicles that make them much more practical for public transportation than some of the models of the late 1990s or early years of the millennium. Four extensions with two centered rotors each, he said, help to handle gyroscopic forces and keep passengers comfortably aloft.

Much of the design, he said, is taken directly from some of the smaller drone models that have been marketed as toys in recent years.

“The toy store drones have grown up,” Keller said.

However, he said, there’s a lot more in play with the passenger drones.

“It’s a lot of pieces of technology converging,” Keller said.

Price might also be an issue. Wired reported that the price of a single vehicle would reach a minimum of $200,000.

Look for updates as UAE leaders work hard to get the Ehang, or something like it, in the sky over Dubai.