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Intel wants this drone to fly you around

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A two-seater Volocopter drone flies on stage at the Intel Keynote address at CES in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. January 8, 2018. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

The plaza outside the Las Vegas Convention Center here had an unusual occupant this week: the prototype of the pilotless, two-passenger helicopter that flew briefly for the first time in the U.S. Monday night.

That German-built aircraft, with 18 rotors positioned around a ring above its trim fuselage, is called the Volocopter 2X, and Intel (INTC) is betting it will be among the first passenger-carrying drones in the U.S. But that dream won’t take off in just any market — and this drone will have company.

A taxi in the sky

The 2X is designed to speed up existing trips that have been made horrible by traffic, not to allow much longer ones or outrace a car that isn’t trapped in a sea of brake lights. Its maximum range of 17 miles and maximum flight time of 27 minutes won’t cure commutes that start in the exurbs and end in cities, and its cruise speed of 43 mph and maximum speed of 62 mph aren’t that much faster than a car or train free of delays.

In other words, the Volocopter would be a huge help for Vegas during CES, where the traffic induced by almost 200,000 attendees causes roads to coagulate into a swamp of stopped cars. A four-mile ride Tuesday morning took 50 minutes.

An array of nine lithium-ion batteries powers the 2X’s 18 rotors; at the end of a trip, technicians can quickly swap them out for freshly-charged ones. The company expects it will be reasonably quiet from the ground; it estimates a noise level of 65 decibels from 250 feet, a noise level comparable to heavy traffic from the same distance.

Volocopter publicist Helena Treeck said the firm is looking for rides to cost “about the same price as an Uber Black,” with commercial service hoped for in about five years. It plans to operate Volocopter 2Xs as a service instead of selling the aircraft to other operators.

The 2X has seats for two, which I tried out during a press event Wednesday morning. The comfortably-padded seats — without seat belts at the time — offered more than enough legroom but very little cargo space. You can put a backpack or something smaller on the floor behind a small instrument panel, but there’s no room behind the seats.

Safety first

“It is extremely safe to fly,” Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter said at Wednesday’s event. “We are extremely confident that we will be able to operate this with a level of safety equivalent to that of commercial airlines.”

The 18 rotors — and their mechanically simple electric engines — provide some of that safety. But the Volocopter also includes a backup parachute to slow the entire airframe to a safe landing, the same type of safety system that Cirrus light aircraft offers.

The Intel Flight Control Technology inside — combining sensors and processors to keep the drone on its intended flight path and out of trouble — is also part of this picture.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich made the Volocopter part of his CES keynote Monday night. After a clip of him enjoying a December test flight — remotely piloted by a human — an onstage Volocopter took off and hovered briefly inside an enclosure.

“Imagine pulling out your phone, opening up a transportation app, and summoning your own personalized ride by air taxi,” Krzanich told the audience.

A long pre-flight checklist

Volocopter is reasonably far along in its development — this aircraft’s first manned flight happened back in spring 2016, and it’s already working with the Federal Aviation Administration to secure a license for outdoor flight tests in the U.S.

But integrating passenger-carrying drones into the air system is a complex task. So is building out an array of helipads that would be easily accessible for passengers.

All those things may thwart this from being a mass-market solution for urban transportation. But niche markets can be profitable too, and Wednesday’s event may have already won Volocopter one customer: An executive with Caesars Entertainment (CZR) mentioned to Reuter that the firm would like to use Volocopters to whisk VIP guests to its casinos.

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