How useful would taxi drones actually be for regular commuters?

Taxi drones would be novel, but only practical if you fly like this already. Photo: Shutterstock.

Taxi drones would be novel, but only practical if you fly like this already. Photo: Shutterstock.

An alternative low-altitude short-range form of human transportation, one that's more likely to take off (pun intended), is taxi drones. These differ from flying cars in that they're not meant for roads or tracks. I make that distinction because I'm employed as a writer and therefore a professional pedant when it comes to using language properly.

Going back to Anglo French and Old North French we find the word carre which refers to a wheeled vehicle. That stems from the Latin word carrus which, as a noun, meant a wagon or wheeled baggage cart or a unit of measure (so it meant a cart load). That's why trains can also use the word car for their carriages, and why I say that anyone calling a flying machine that will have skids or similar a car is actually fishing for headlines and marketing their concept to a self-centric non-collectivist audience. The saddest part is, this PR tactic usually works on newsrooms.

Anyway, taxi drones, or other uses for small helicopter derivatives, will just fly, which reduces the engineering compromises, especially weight which in turn affects carrying capacity and range. Being a flying machine and nothing else means there's a bit less of an aerodynamic compromise too, which also affects range and speed. Plus, being drones with no pilot to carry would increase their load capacity a bit as well.

That's not to say they would be free of all the problems flying cars (a very old existing invention that's meant to transit across land as well, remember) would also face.

Bad weather, especially wind, will cause the entire network to be grounded. In fact, the smaller a craft the more affected it will be.

Drones wouldn't need quite as much personal space as human-flown craft, but still way more than cars need, so traffic capacity is still finite. They'd also need to use certain paths, although the ability of drones to communicate among themselves to avoid each other will help. Complicating matters though would be human-controlled craft also trying to use this low-altitude airspace.

With vertical take-off they will only need a helipad not a runway, but they'll still need them, and these will have to be built in designated places to account for the noise and the obtrusive blustery air disruption they'll cause so they can't be too close to where people are trying to live or work.

Hopefully those designated landing sites are still reasonably close to where you are and want to go though, or at least very nearby to other services to complete your journey efficiently (and therefore make the taxi flight worth bothering with in the first place).

Also, being taxis (not private vehicles) the issue of finding somewhere to park after landing doesn't present itself either; they'll just keep working until they're low on stored energy. That brings us to the next point.

Taxi drone designs being worked on currently seem be electrified in some way, so if, and it's a big if, they copy Tesla and spend up big bringing their own renewable electricity generation online for recharging (or for producing hydrogen, which is another source that can power electric motors) then they can claim them not to be changing the climate and poisoning the air we breathe.

However, if they're on the grid at all (even during production) they'll be increasing the still-colossal usage of coal, especially since flying requires way more energy than driving. Regenerative deceleration (like electric cars) would be token at best, and current-tech thin solar panels on their modest surface area would only run non-propulsion systems.

Another point to consider, even if the problems of landing sites, noise, safety and energy sources are resolved, not to mention exorbitant cost, is whether we actually need them or just want them for the sake of it. To be anything more than a novelty experience for tourists they need to solve some problem, in this case commuting. But since we now know that working from home is something millions of Aussies can do whether they're plebs like me or CEOs, it seems helicopter-style commuting for the masses became redundant even before it became a thing.

This story How useful would taxi drones be for regular commuters? first appeared on The Canberra Times.