Around 100,000 people fly into Heathrow airport each day. A choice facing each of those passengers is how to travel the 20 final miles into the capital. One option is to top up your Oyster Card, get on the Piccadilly Line and sulk into your luggage for 45 minutes. A welcome upgrade might be taking the train into Paddington – the Heathrow Express takes 15 minutes. Driving is possibly the most perilous in terms of hold-ups and black cabs are good if you plan to re-mortgage. Uber’s a bit better, but how much longer they might be operational in London is a moot point.
Enter Martin Warner and his startup, Autonomous Flight. His flying vehicle is not-so-catchily called the Y6S, but don’t let the name stifle your imagination. This is a battery-powered, pilotless flying drone. First, think driverless cars; next, think driverless cars that fly; finally, think about driverless cars which could fly you from the airport to the heart of London, circumventing traffic and striking trainguards alike.
Autonomous Flight envisions a world where, for £25 – much less than a cab and only a bit more than a train – you can be zoomed to Charing Cross in 12 minutes, luggage and all. Plus, you’d be in a drone, which is pretty cool.
If all goes to plan, Autonomous Flight should be test-flying with passengers in 2018. It has already trialled the Futurama-esque contraption with nobody on board near the Kent-Surrey border without a hitch. Warner predicts that, on this timeline, drones as a viable form of transport should be part and parcel of urban UK life within the next five years.
Across the pond, Uber, in conjunction with NASA, has similar plans to launch a flying taxi – testing is due to start in 2020. Just a few months ago in September 2017, Dubai saw the successful test-launch of the ‘Volocopter’, which took Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed into the air for five entire minutes. Making it past the M25 without touching tarmac might not carry the same glamour as the Space Race, but the stakes are just as high now for whoever strikes gold in this aerospace competition.
There are questions around the security and vulnerability of the vehicles to hackers – operating in the air seemingly adds an extra element of fear to the usual driverless debate – but Warner has dismissed such claims, suggesting that, as with anything, as long as firms stay one step ahead everything should be fine.
Exuding confidence on the topic is one thing, but we live in a world where most of us still fret about losing our luggage. If autonomous flying drones genuinely are going to become a transport solution for the masses, the guaranteed safety of the whole operation is likely to be the greatest hurdle before – if you’ll pardon the pun – take-off.