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Dubai's Fabled Self-Flying Taxis Have Lifted Off

The future of urban air travel is much closer than we realize.

Earlier this year, the head of Dubai’s transportation agency said that self-flying taxis would begin service by July. Much of the world scoffed, but to Dubai’s credit, they’re still on pace to make that dream a reality, albeit a few months behind schedule.

On Sept. 25, Dubai announced it had conducted a test flight in what would herald in a new era of flying drone taxis. The aircraft, operating under the working name AAT (Autonomous Air Taxi) and manufactured by drone maker Volocopter, was the focus of a ceremonial flight test witnessed on the ground by Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, who pressed the launch button to initiate the widely anticipated flight.

A video of the craft’s first flight throughout the city was made available for all to see.

As the video shows, the craft took off, traveled through the air, and landed safely without incident, boding well for the development of the citywide program.

The AAT’s current specs allow the drone, using 18 propellers, to fly for up to 30 minutes at a time with two passengers at a rate of about 62 mph.

Of course, the ability of a drone to perform its prescribed duties are but a small piece in the implementation of a fleet of passenger-carrying drones moving above a crowded city’s streets. The regulatory issues that face such a rollout may prove more daunting than the development of the actual technology. As The National reports, the liability of international flights are governed by the Warsaw Convention of 1929, but domestic flights are the purview of the country in which they take place.

Not only does this task Dubai with the safety and security of the flights, including permitting and regulating prospective companies, but also to establish clear liability for accidents either in the sky or on the ground.

Finally, there’s the issue of whether or not this is actually something the public wants or can even stomach. Passengers on more traditional commercial flights might be surprised to learn that technology has relegated pilots to spending only 5% of their time in the air actually handling the aircraft. However, their presence may be soothing enough — something that will be conspicuously absent in the AATs.

The successful high-profile flight will usher in the next round of testing, regulatory discussions, and market research to determine if this thing that’s able to be done actually should be done. But in the meantime, this test flight sure does provide one of those cliche “the future is now” moments, doesn’t it?

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