￼2017 is the year of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles. So far, we’ve seen a few wild projects and some further in the future ones. Despite battery energy density not being quite there yet for long-distance flights, electric airplanes and drones (and everything in between) are taking off. Today’s drone fad is all the rage and has been thrust into the media with such force that it shouldn’t surprise anyone to find a few companies working on drones capable of flying people, right?
Human Passenger Drone
A few companies are tackling the VTOL mobility solution with drones. And why not — drones are everywhere. In our walk on the beach just yesterday, we witnessed a drone crashing into a pole, breaking it apart. The owner(s) wasn’t quick to retrieve it. In fact, we never saw them pick it up.
So, it wasn’t with much surprise that I saw the Passenger Drone company’s embargoed press release in my inbox last week.
Essentially, the Passenger Drone is an oversized drone that can carry one to two people. Its fuselage is close to that of a helicopter design, using the company’s Adaptive Flight Control with a Fiber Optic Internal Communications system, a Field Oriented Motor Control, and Encrypted Communication Channels.
As a VTOL should do, the Passenger Drone can take off, land, and perform flight maneuvering autonomously, as well as being guided remotely via a secure LTE network. It can also be piloted onboard with a Touch Flight Control fly-by-wire system controlled either via the touch sensitive displays or fly-by-wire joystick.
Passenger Drone Officially Launches Two-Seat Electric VTOL
As of September 29, 2017, Passenger Drone announced the successful launch of what it calls the world’s most advanced, state-of-the-art, autonomous manned aerial vehicle.
What this means is that the VTOL is slightly larger than a small car and is aimed at disturbing the way we view traditional commuting. Where the company put in a lot of work is in its ease of use and intuitive command design. By using an easy-to-use touchscreen (think of the generous Tesla Model S touchscreen), Passenger Drone’s passengers select their destination, sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride at up to 80 km/h (roughly 50 mph).
The company began its first flight testing back in May 2017. During the last few months, it tested its flight capabilities with different simulated payload weights. It also focused on simulated engine failures in various control modes. By August 2017, the company was able to test its first manned flights with passengers onboard. According to the company, the Passenger Drone is very easy to fly in both manual and autonomous modes and it shows amazing stability and maneuverability.￼
Personal Drone, Technically Speaking
The company equipped its flying drone with 16 low-noise, high-speed electric engines. This zero-emissions design borrows heavily from current drone design by doubling the more common quad-copter design. But the number of electric motors also means lightening the weight as much as possible elsewhere. Hence, the vehicle’s structure is made up of fiber composites especially designed for the Passenger Drone. ￼
The company uses a custom Glass Avionics Display software and firmware that allows the Autopilot and stabilization functions, as well as power management and standard avionics.
The accent is on remote controlling the Passenger Drone. The company states that this allows “an operator located as far away as the EU or Asia to fly a North America–based aircraft safely and efficiently (if required). The system is controlled online and does not require any radio remote control.” That brings us to a critical point. In this day and age of IoT, the Internet of Things, we would like to understand its security features better. Hacking has become a rightful concern these days of always-on and connected devices. From smartwatches to vehicles, everything can be hacked.
Here are two videos showing the interface of the remote controlling of the vehicle.
What interests us most is what’s in it. The potential for pure battery-electric flying vehicles is tremendous and opens an era of faster, more convenient, and direct commutes. But it also involves plenty of obstacles that are slowly being surmounted. One of which is that of battery energy density, or how much electricity a battery can hold with as little weight as possible.
We are digging for more details, but in the meantime, the company has told CleanTechnica that it is using lithium-ion batteries for max energy density at a reasonable cost.
Personal VTOL, Are We There Yet?
To be fair, battery technology is developing in leaps and bounds compared to other forms of energy storage. While our current state of lithium-ion battery might not be ready for 100 passengers in a VTOL vehicle that can travel for hundreds of miles, they can handle short distances with one or two passengers. Obviously, the technology matures fast and breakthroughs are happening on a monthly level, if not weekly.￼
If you want to keep abreast of the company’s development, here are its social media channels: Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
As to the question of whether we are there yet, perhaps not quite yet — at least, as much as the general public would wish us to be. However, we are lightyears ahead of the youthful exuberance of 2008 when all of a sudden every company had an electric vehicle of some sort in the works. Battery technology has shrunk at an impressive rate, growing the range of electric vehicles while making them much more affordable. We’re still not there as far as hopping on a VTOL and hopping off to the closest nearby city. Give it a year or two and we’ll have trial versions of that in the air.￼
In the meantime, we welcome yet another player in the electric VTOL field that is off to a good start — Passenger Drone.
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