The Economist’s Gulliver blog airily describes Dubai as “a city that sometimes seems to inhabit a time zone five years ahead of the rest of the planet.”
For anyone trying to capture the emirate’s relentless dynamism, that’s probably an understatement.
Here’s a quick look at what’s happening in ultra-futuristic Dubai right now:
- Cops driving Lamborghinis. This could theoretically happen anywhere, but it nevertheless fits Dubai to a T. Where else could average-Joe cops (OK, their precincts) afford $500,000 supercars?
- People living on the 160th floor. Dubai’s Burj Khalifa is nearly a kilometer tall. It’s the tallest occupied structure in the world by a wide margin—nearly 700 feet, as of 2017. Though it’s sure to be passed by some other super-ambitious developer at some point in the near- to medium-term, you should never count Dubai out of the world’s tallest race for long.
- Skiers skiing in the desert. The Mall of the Emirates, one of the largest indoor malls in the world, has an ace up its sleeve—actually, poking above its roofline. It’s Ski Dubai, an indoor ski run with a 300-foot vertical and surprisingly diverse terrain. Just remember to take your coat off before you leave the building.
- Rock stars cleaning up. The under-construction Autism Rocks Arena, Autism Rocks’ most ambitious project to date, is one of the world’s largest charity venues. Where else can you find a venue solely dedicated to top-tier celebrities and thousands of their fans rocking out for a good cause?
- Gold coming out of ATMs. Some ATMs spit out tens. Some dispense twenties. Some rock fifties. (Generous!) In Dubai, the ATMs dole out literal gold. Hey, beats the currency exchange kiosk.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. (Or indoor ski slope?)
Watch Out Above for Your New Drone Overlords
Lately, there’s been a buzz in Dubai’s air. It’s not the wind whistling past the upper floors of the Burj Khalifa, nor the engines of Dreamliners rocketing skyward from the ever-expanding international airport—which, almost overnight, has become one of the world’s busiest and most logistically critical air hubs.
No, it’s the sound of rotors furiously beating the air at the behest of no man or woman. It’s the sound of driverless air taxis. Drone Ubers, if you will. Where else but Dubai would they make their (potentially) world-changing debut?
According to The Economist, Dubai’s city government announced that it would begin a drone taxi pilot program by the middle of 2017. It’ll be a relatively low-key affair to start: one-passenger taxis capable of carrying just 220 pounds of payload (passenger and cargo) and holding to a range of just 31 miles. Still, expressed as a radius from Dubai’s city center, that range covers most of the emirate’s population and the vast majority of its tourist-friendly points of interest (including the bustling international airport).
The hook: These air taxis can speed along at over 60 miles per hour, twice as fast as central Dubai’s traffic-choked highways and surface streets on a good day.
Why Driverless Air Taxis Might Actually Make Sense
Dubai’s modest pilot program won’t change its transportation calculus overnight. But, a few years down the road, a successful drone taxi showcase might well be remembered as a turning point in the annals of local transportation.
Drone taxis have several advantages over land-based taxis, rideshares and private vehicles.
For starters, they operate in a far less complicated environment, and are therefore far easier to automate. There are fewer obstacles in the skies, assuming controls are implemented to reduce the impact of unauthorized flying objects.
Second, there’s more space up there. The typical urban freeway has perhaps 10 or 12 traffic lanes. The skies have theoretically unlimited room to roam, even within vertical “windows” that prohibit travel below, say, 400 feet and above, say, 800 feet.
Third, drone taxis are safer—once the kinks get worked out. With fewer obstacles and more space, there’s statistically far less likelihood of accidents. Future drone taxi models are likely to have passenger safety systems that limit the tragic, destructive impact of in-air malfunctions too.
And, importantly, drone taxis are likely to be cheaper than roadworthy driverless vehicles, which need lots more instrumentation (not to mention impact-deflecting weight).
All told, it sounds like the time of the drone taxis may finally be upon us.
They’re Coming: More Novel Uses for Drones
It’s a close call, but driverless air taxis may win the award for most sensational, soon-to-be-commercialized drone application. Scary or not, they’re pretty cool.
They’re far from the only cool use for ever-improving drone technology, though. Let’s zoom out from Dubai and take a quick tour of what else is happening in the wide, wide world of unpiloted aircraft:
- Weather observation and climate research. “Hurricane hunting” is one of the most dangerous and underappreciated meteorological jobs—and it’s still largely done by humans piloting instrument-laden aircraft through apocalyptic squalls. Tornado chasing is even more dangerous. Both can—and likely will—be done a lot more easily and safely by flying robots.
- Can drones carry our water, literally? It’s happening sooner than you think. Whether out in the brush or ascending the emergency stairs in a deathtrap tenement building, human firefighters put their lives on the line every day. Large, unpiloted drones can do much of that legwork while human professionals remain out of harm’s way.
- Light shows and pyrotechnics. Laser- and bomb-equipped drones aren’t necessarily death machines. They can also amuse and delight us. Case in point: pyrotechnic drones that launch fireworks from a safe distance, enchanting crowds without showering them with sparks.
- Door-to-door delivery. This one’s just over the horizon: Amazon and other companies are gearing up for door-to-door drone delivery, pending final FAA rulemaking.
- Search and rescue operations. Drones can cover lots more ground at far lower cost than human search-and-rescue teams. They’re especially useful at sea, where human searchers are hampered by the need to refuel on distant ships or shores.
Does the idea of a driverless air taxi excite or terrify you?