back to article EU boffins ponder robot copters that carry people but no pilots

Automation is supposed to make life easier: allowing us to loll around eating doughnuts while the machine does its thing. But when the machine stops working, humans have to throw their half-eaten baked goods to one side and deal with the screw-up. And while that's one thing on a factory production line, it's another when you're …

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Silver badge

Manual? No.

He said that early adoptors would not accept full automation. I submit that society and the government would not accept anything less. Can you imagine what happens when you have people with minimal training in flying vehicles? If you think drunk drivers are a problem now, imagine them coming through your ceiling with all the kinetic energy of a quarter-ton chunk of metal dropping from a hundred meters up. It'd be a terrorists dream weapon, able to fly over any traffic barrier. Not to mention all the typically idiotic people who would find great sport in dropping things on people out the windows. Sooner or later someone trying to get ahead in the school run is going to come crashing into a busy playground, and the societal outrage will be so great the government will have no choice but to ban non-automated aircraft for low-training drivers. Even if someone solves the problem of fuel efficiency, autopilot design, noise and all the other engineering concerns, the future wouldn't be flying cars: It'd be flying taxis. Get in, enter your destination on the control panel, and get some work done or watch TV while it flies you there and lands on a designated and approved landing pad.

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Facepalm

Re: Manual? No.

Errrr ... Suricou Raven, I think you missed something. You managed to get terrorists in, but missed how these would be a benefit (somehow) to paedophiles. You cannot be taken seriously as a fear-monger, I'm afraid.

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Silver badge
Devil

Self driving car is much harder.

1. Other people.

Google may succeed in California (not that a lot of the US is any different) - driving there is like driving in a place inhabited by sedate OAPs. Try driving in Italy or the Balkans. I would not dare thinking about a driverless car in India (let's assume we have to deal only with psychotic drivers, not with cows).

The autopilot is not the only automated system in a plane. Collision avoidance on larger aircraft has been standardized and automatic for a very long time now and it generally works. We hear about collisions only in small aircraft or cases where someone has decided to override or turn off the collision avoidance (as in the infamous crash over Germany under Swiss air control). So there is a considerable history of people trusting automatic systems even in "sh*t just hit the fan" moments.

2. Legacy.

There is a century worth of legacy - roads were made to be navigated by people. Here USA is particularly bad - difficult to read (machine and human) signs, non-pictographic road signage, plethora of wildly varying speed restrictions, etc.

GPS, omniscient maps, etc are all nice, but they get you to a point. Unless the signage system changes to something more machine readable (or is augmented by machine readable interfaces) there will be corner cases where the AI and sign recognition system will fail (especially in the USA).

So coming back to the PAV - it will be easier to make it driverless than the current cars. By far. Less work and less legacy to contain with.

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Silver badge

re. collision avoidance on aircraft

Also, for large aircraft, there are ATC systems which have collision prediction and flagging tools to alert ATC staff; and large aircraft fly on predetermined routes at predetermined times. When they converge at at airport, there are established systems staffed by experienced people to monitor and direct them. The PAV will not have these systems (apparently) and so it will be a couple of orders of magnitude more difficult to predict/control and avoid accidents.

As for cars: In the town where I live, there are cars for hire that will take you where you want to go and you don't need to drive. They have built in AI that understands human speech (usually). They are called taxis.

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Rob
WTF?

Re: re. collision avoidance on aircraft

My town's taxis have the MI (minimal intelligence) software installed, to get upgraded to AI will take a lot of work.

Icon represents what I'm thinking most of the time I'm in one of said taxis.

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Silver badge

Good points.

Just on the road signage... I would have thought that machine-readable signs would just be used as a backup to the GPS- (ie, the QR code or whatever on the sign tells the vehicle where it is on which road- a secondary back up would be an inertial dead-reckoning system): the actual content of the signs (ie, '50', 'Give Way', 'Danger of Falling Rocks' etc) would be stored on board the vehicle.

I would have thought that a passive RF system would be more resilient to bird droppings and buck shot than a sign-mounted optical system, too.

Obviously there will be other systems too - should a vehicle activate its air-bags, it will transmit the fact, over both a cellular network and locally.

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Thumb Up

Re: re. collision avoidance on aircraft

Try sitting in the passenger seat with a Garmin/Tom-Tom/Streetmap/Multimap print out of the route from pick-up to destination in view. That tends to motivate the MI to get more AI.

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Anonymous Coward

@Dave 126: Machine-Readable Street Signs will be Hacked

I'm pretty sure some techno-punks would modify machine-readable street / warning signs for laughs or profit. They could detour the AI cars to conveniently-for-the-bad-guys out-of-the-way places, followed by robbery/kidnap/rape/whatever.

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Silver badge

Signage in the USA

Signage in the USA is "particularly bad"? Compared to what? Europe and the Commonwealth countries, perhaps - though I haven't seen any systematic studies either way. But certainly the USA is in much better shape than, say, Japan, where street signs in cities are nearly non-existent. Or most of Africa, or the vast non-urban spaces of South America.

Though I don't think it matters much, as I suspect this problem is well down on the list of difficult or intractable issues to solve before machine driving is a good option in the general case.

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Bronze badge
WTF?

Or just use buses

Buses are far cheaper to run and maintain, and you only need a moderately educated person to drive the thing. So for the price of one of these automated vehicles (Which really aren't solving the congestion problem since they don't actually decrease the amount of traffic on the road) you could run 2 buses, transporting well over 1,000 passengers a day for several years and still end up being cheaper, safer and healthier for the environment (Especially if you use electric powered buses like the ones where I live).

Sure it takes a few extra minutes to get to my office, but taking the bus only costs me about $4 a day ($5 if I decide to go shopping) plus I can take a nap, or use the WiFi and do some work.

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Silver badge

Re: Or just use buses

There is a dislike of busses rooted deep in human nature: People like independence. A car isn't just a means of transport: It's freedom. Owning a car is a modern rite of passage, espicially in the US. People do not want to be slaves to the bus timetable, forced to endure helplessly for fifteen minutes as they wait for the bus to come. It's psychologically distressing.

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Yag

Re: Or just use buses

Matter of taste, personal point of view and local culture... And also the actual type of transit.

I prefer to hitch a ride and enjoy a nice book during the waiting period than to get stressed by city rush hour traffic.

I still have a car however, it is far more convenient for short distance out of town trips..

And I'll switch to train for medium/long distance (over 500 km - European "long distance" is quite relative, y'know...)

Furthermore, most of the time, the mass transit is actually faster than the personnal car.

- Busses sometime use dedicated ways on major lines, I won't even start to argue for tramway and metro speed. And you don't have to spend 10 minutes to find a park place.

- Trains for long distance... I'm 3 hours away from the capital by train, 5-6 by car.

Finally, the idea of being independent via over reliance on a single device seems a bit odd to me...

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Silver badge

Re: Or just use buses

How do you cope with the nausea-inducing movement of the coachwork and the sod-casting teenagers?

I did like the scene in StarTrek IV where Spock administers a Vulcan nerve pinch to the bloke with a ghetto-blaster - but I would take listing to someone's ghetto-blaster over some twerp's tinny mobile phone speaker any day of the week.

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Silver badge

Re: Or just use buses

>[Busses] you don't have to spend 10 minutes to find a park place.

Good point. Bicycles too, they take you door to door. There are things that can be done to promote bicycle use, and I'm not thinking of box-ticking cycle lanes (check out the book 'Britain's crappest cycle lanes' to confirm your worst suspicions of local authority incompetence):

-Security of parked cycles. Force employers to allow bicycles into the building, rather than hide behind 'Fire Safety' regs- within reason, obviously.

- Shower / wash facilities, where practical. In some cases, this can prevent a journey (shower at work and head to the pub in town, rather than head home and back for a wash first)

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Silver badge

Re: Or just use buses

Cheaper for whom? I live 4 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon on a main road. There is a bus stop outside my house. It is covenient, true, but It is cheaper for me to drive my daughter to town in 4.6 litre 4x4 than it is to buy one adult and one child ticket.

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Silver badge

Re: Or just use buses

Cheaper for whom? Cheaper for you: you don't have to buy the entitre bus, but you do have to buy the entire 4.6 litre 4x4. It's not just about the price of the bus ticket, it's about total running cost.

Of course if you need to own the 4.6 litre 4x4 anyway to drive to places that aren't served by busses at all then that's another matter, but the OP said *just* use busses.

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Silver badge

Re: Or just use buses

Owning a car is a modern rite of passage, espicially in the US

But trending less so. The proportion of teens and young adults getting driving licenses in the US is on the decline. See for example:

http://www.sheknows.com/parenting/articles/961821/fewer-teens-getting-drivers-licenses

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Bronze badge
Facepalm

Manual? HELL NO!

As a pilot I can say one thing for sure. Either the controllers need the full training as it happens now, including lessons on airspace structure and law, navigation, structures, controls, instruments, etc OR the system needs to be fully automatic with no option for manual control. The air safety record isn't as good as it is today because we just muck about a bit. It's carefully designed training programs and a very specific safety culture endemic to the aviation world.

<Voland's right hand> is right that building a self driving car is probably more difficult than making a UAV. At this time. Once the sky gets busier and more congested, there will be much more to look out for. The workload in the air climbs MUCH faster with more vehicles in close proximity. Drive around with 20 cars on a carpark and it'll be relatively easy to handle. Fly around with 20 aircraft in a 2 km circular zone around an airfield and it becomes a very intensive mental load and very exhausting. (Moving in 2 dimensions cars follow a pretty predictable fligthpath. Planes don't tend to do that, and the mental workload needed to avoid collision climbs much faster with each aircraft that get added to "the observation area". Add to that most light aircraft tend to not fly BELOW roughly 80 km/h and you get a whole lot more trouble. This doesn't really hold true for helos but even those want to stick to above-transition speeds)

Flying vehicles will NEVER work if not fully automated. John Average can't handle it, and doesn't WANT to handle it like he should.

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Gold badge
FAIL

Imho this is a fail on so many levels. They claim that it's to overcome congestion, but we barely have the fuel to run the cars we've got, and all they have to do is accelerate a bit and climb the occasional hill. Now they want helicoptors that need significantly more fuel to defy gravity? That's even before considering all the extra plant food (CO2) that would be released.

I suggest a better idea is to remove the requirement of people to travel so much. Work at home, or work places and living places together, instead of cramming al working places in the centre of a huge city, so that people have to travel for miles from the living space areas to the working space areas. Helps solve both the congestion and burning fuel problems. For the rest, get mass transport working properly

Individual flying machines only seem to increase the problems.

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Silver badge

Not enough fuel?

I thought some of the recent plane designs were shown to be more fuel efficient flying over most cities rather than trying to drive through them.

The thought of the BMW pilot overtaking and pushing in at the dirigible cones at the last moment does put a downer (sic) on the whole idea.

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Silver badge

Re: Not enough fuel?

Did "recent plane designs" mean optimised cruising in an airliner, or a helicopter?

No idea how the proposed future craft fair for efficiency, but current full-size helicopters are around 2-3mpg AFAIK, and I suspect improvements in that would be matched by improvements in car/bus/trains.

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"GPS in every schoolbag"

This seems crazy, doesn't it? But UK pilots were very, VERY, *VERY* nearly put in that position four years ago. The CAA put out a "consultation" for mandating a transponder on every aircraft, no exceptions. The window of saying "hell no" was vanishingly small, and at the public meetings it turned out that the CAA had no idea that gliders existed. They also weren't aware that transponders are all the size of a briefcase and need a car battery to run them, which isn't exactly ideal for a paraglider pilot; not to mention that they cost several grand to buy and a grand a year to maintain.

The main reason the CAA tried doing this was not for general safety - there are very few airprox reports between commercial aircraft and gliders, and no actual collisions since Biggles packed away his flying helmet. No, the reason was to make it easier for UAVs in the future.

What they kind of missed is that the most numerous aviators are avians, and a goose is not going to come fitting with a transponder. A light-aircraft pilot will avoid obvious flocks of birds, but if the UAV isn't looking for them, they're SOL.

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Silver badge

Re: "GPS in every schoolbag"

"GPS in every schoolbag"

It does sound stupid. Some children, unfortunately, are reliant on being able to find a hiding place from abusers in their families- cases like this are far more common than abuse perpetrated by strangers.

A better system might be for some of the meat-bag avoidance systems to be offloaded from the car to the street - ie around a school, you have post-mounted infra-red cameras that track the position of warm bodies and generate alarms if one darts towards the road... A car sensor will be hard pressed to detect a child if it darts out from between parked cars. Obviously the car should be doing no more 20mph before braking, hopefully making any collision an educational rather than final experience for the child.

( just a first thought, I haven't thought this through)

Before throwing high tech at a problem, better planning can be employed. Don't place busy roads next to schools etc

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M7S
Bronze badge
Facepalm

GPS locators in children's school bags.

Great, so I can find my child's bag when he's left it behind. At least the bag will never be run over

How will it work when a child is on the way to/from the sports field (no schoolbooks required)

or on holiday

or it's a weekend

or it's in the car whilst they child helps a parent shopping after school

or is at a club/society/activity? (Its not only the under 10's who get run over)

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Big Brother

Re: GPS locators in children's school bags.

Obviously the solution is that the GPS locator shouldn't be in the child's school bag.

It needs to be installed in the _child_.

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Silver badge
WTF?

Wrong in so many ways!

Firstly, as already pointed out, we have a fuel/energy problem with cars and they need a fraction of a helicopter's energy for a comparable journey.

Also touched upon - where do you park them all? Buses drop passengers off, then move on...

And GPS for kids to make them non-targets - some Orwellian wet dream methinks? Who was the muppet who thought that anyone, or anything, should be forced to carry the cost of protecting themselves from someone else's transport or toy?

Self-driving cars are much easier, but just as capable of being deadly if they went wrong. I would like a ruling on liability first, for example, can the on-board software (and thus the maker) be held accountable? Will it have the usual weasel-worded EULA passing the responsibility on to the 'operator' who may be unable/not expecting to take emergency control when the unexpected happens?

Taxi please!

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Anonymous Coward

The answer is a road network of dodgems I tell you.

Fun and safe

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Silver badge

road network of dodgems

They have them in France, almost. They are nicknamed 'Cars for the blind' and can be driven without a licence - even if you have your licence through drink-driving. They were designed for old people who either never had a licence or are considered too frail to drive a normal vehicle. They sound distinctly agricultural.

I also noted that the French treat their rural teenagers better - I spied a few teenagers on mopeds taking their girlfriends for a ride, whereas here in the UK they can't whilst they have their (seemingly permanent) L-plates.

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Silver badge
Meh

Good Thinking

But it has a LONG way to go to be practical. There are many problems (as previous commenters have stated) but as a pilot I think a manual option is guaranteed doom. Most people can't drive a car safely, forget about something travelling in 3 dimensions. Full auto or nothing.

The idea of sharing has been brought up before & I think its spot on. Keep the fleet of automated flyers moving constantly & eliminate the parking issue. Only fratboy BMW drivers will demand their own craft and fuck them. Don't need them anyway.

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Anonymous Coward

Maintanance

How often will these machines be serviced?

After recent events in the North Sea*, the choppers carrying the guys back and forth to the rigs are serviced after every flight.

*Not just talking about the splashdown in May this year, but all the choppers displaying nasty warning lights and turning back just after takeoff. That stuff doesn't even make the local news.

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Pint

Inventions are cool

I like reading about interesting inventions that hope to take a step toward solving difficult problems.

I had always thought that consumer flying machines would need to be light and be able to glide if they completely lost power, so that there would be some reasonable hope of walking away from engine trouble (even those troubles brought on by consumer laziness, like trying to fly farther than available fuel allows). I'm not sure the helicopter approach applies.

There's also the hippie BS about lighter vehicles needing less fuel, but at this stage in development, I think we can reasonably set that aside until we have a working safety model.

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Silver badge

Re: Inventions are cool

I like reading about interesting inventions that hope to take a step toward solving difficult problems.

I like eating doughnuts while machines do all the work.

Unfortunately the project described in this article shows little promise toward satisfying either desire.

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Silver badge
Boffin

"solving Europe's road congestion"

Alternatively, instead of trying to "solve" the problem by creating a new one (how to control these mini-copters), how about making it easier for people to get from A to B without the massive waste of space that involves putting *one* person in a vehicle designed to carry four (or five, or seven)?

It's all very well to whinge about "independence" etc, but when you're doing the same journey, day in, day out, how many times will you actually *need* that independence? On that day, fine, use your own car, but don't be selfish and think "well, I *might* need it so I'll take it today, and tomorrow, and the next few days too..."

Make it easier for people to ride bicycles or motorbikes. Put more money into mass transit systems. For example down here in Portsmouth there was a plan for a light transit system to take the load off the M275, London Road and Eastern Road which are the only three ways off Portsea Island (and if one gets blocked, it can gridlock the whole city!) but that was cancelled when the DfT refused it funding back in 2005, so we're stuck with lots of people driving out of the city in the morning, then back in in the evening which is ludicrously wasteful.

Such systems are hardly rocket science, we just need the will to make them happen!

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Silver badge

Re: "solving Europe's road congestion"

There are two major problems with road transport: roadworks and drivers. Roadworks disturb the flow of traffic almost as much selfish or inattentive drivers.

A fairly failsafe alternative would be larger versions of those air-pipe things you still see sucking money up at some supermarkets.

A 4m internal diameter pipe could take a pod with car and passengers inside it at a few hundred miles an hour using very little fuel compared to driving. Air would cushion the pods from crashing into each other and simple sorting areas used to off load/redirect traffic.

That way car transport could be like flying - more time spent boarding than travelling.

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Silver badge
Happy

Errrrrm, Anna ...

... I think you will find that doughnuts are fried, not baked.

Mmmmmmmmm ... dooooouughnuts (gurgle)

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Silver badge

Safety is number ... 2 (at best)

"Safety is the top concern that people have with the idea of personal helicopters," says Professor Michael Decker

The hell it is. It's not the "top concern" a majority of people have with any other form of transportation; why would it be so for this one?

And it's certainly not my top concern. First I'd be concerned to know whether there's any useful result to be achieved. Certainly none is presented in the article. As other posters have pointed out, they're trying to solve one artificial problem (traffic congestion) by addressing the symptom, with a cure that's probably worse than the disease. Even if this scheme is technically, socially, and economically feasible, it will just encourage the sort of behavior (sprawl and excessive local travel) that caused the problem in the first place.

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