Dubai is taking transportation to new heights—literally. That was the takeaway this week after the director of the city’s transportation authority unveiled plans to roll out passenger drones across the city. The announcement, which was reported far and wide in publications such as the New York Times and Engadget, is part of a broader plan to increase driverless technology.
The first drones—eight-rotor models from Chinese manufacturer EHang—will be large enough to transport a passenger of up to 260 pounds and a small suitcase. They are expected to hit the skies by July.
Technically, the model Dubai will use is the EHang 184, a drone that generated quite a buzz when it debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2016. These particular drones boast a flight range of about 30 minutes or 31 miles, whichever expires first.
Think of the drones as large bubbles flanked by rotors that provide lift and propulsion. They look like something out of The Jetsons. They function like something out of a science-fiction flick.
Here’s how the devices work: A paying passenger enters the drone and uses voice recognition to confirm his or her destination. After takeoff, the drone communicates over a wireless network with a control center on the ground for the latest weather and air traffic patterns to determine the most efficient route. The drone then delivers the passenger to his or her destination.
The Associated Press reported that the drones already have taken to the skies on a trial basis, flying around the Burj Al-Arab skyscraper. It was not clear whether these trial flights included human passengers—not that it really matters at this point. As driverless technology becomes more prevalent, a growing number of companies could ante-in for a seat at the driverless table. Ultimately, experts said Dubai likely won’t be the only city around the world to adopt drones as taxis. Mike Masnick, president of the Copia Institute, a Silicon Valley think tank, described it as “probably inevitable” that the trend will spread, noting that most places will be fearful of whether or not the technology is really ready.
“We’re already having trouble wrapping our heads around the regulation of both autonomous cars and unmanned drones,” he said. “Combine the two and I think most governments will be hesitant to approve [drones] at this time.”
Regardless of how the taxi drones are used in Dubai, their presence will make a difference—the city has become notorious for traffic that rivals Los Angeles, and any alternative to that will be welcome.
As a visitor to the metropolis, ask yourself: Wouldn’t it be better to fly over the traffic than to sit in it?
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.