No emergent travel tech is more high profile than hyperloop, which was the subject of intense interest in the halls and concourses at Dubai World Trade Centre.
Just weeks ago, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies announced it would build a 10km track close to the Expo 2020 Dubai site, in time for the six-month event. It also claimed that it would eventually extend its network to other emirates, and signed a deal with real estate developer Aldar Properties.
Competition in the UAE – and the region – will come from Virgin Hyperloop One, which recently appointed Richard Branson to chair its board of directors, and has partnered with Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority (RTA), to conduct feasibility studies in the emirate.
This comes after a successful engagement with the Dubai Future Accelerators programme, which culminated in Hyperloop One presenting its value proposition to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. Meanwhile, Dubai-based ports and terminals operator DP World also owns a stake in the venture.
Those behind the technology posit 12 minutes as the potential travel time between Dubai and Abu Dhabi – compared to around an hour and a half by car.
“Hyperloop One is focused on transport that’s far more efficient, fast and clean. It will change the dynamics of how we move goods and people,” Shervin Pishevar, Executive Chairman at Virgin Hyperloop One, said at ATM this week. “Dubai makes perfect sense for Hyperloop One because this is the 21st century’s global transport hub, and its leaders understand that Hyperloop One is ushering in the next era of transportation.”
Aside from the considerable benefits of the faster movement of people, observers note that hyperloop’s greatest transformative potential lies in its facility as a range extender for autonomous vehicles. As these vehicles gain in popularity, so companies are looking to ‘plug’ them into the hyperloop system. And numbers are on the rise: 8 million cars will be built for the consumer market that display autonomous (or semi-autonomous) capabilities by 2025, claims market research firm ABI.
As ever, Dubai is making waves in this emerging sector. Sheikh Mohammed has predicted that the future of transportation in the emirate will form one of the key pillars of Dubai’s drive to be a ‘smart city’, and has mandated that 25 per cent of Dubai's transportation should be autonomous by 2030. This achievement, it is estimated, will reduce travel costs by 44 per cent and accidents by 12 per cent.
Watch the skies
Autonomous transport technology could soon fill the skies above our heads. Dubai residents have already had a glimpse at the under-development Volocopter, a two-seater VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft that can be operated autonomously, or by a driver.
With a maximum speed of 100km/h and a maximum flight time of 30 minutes, the German-built Volocopter’s main selling point is that it is 100 per cent electric, with no fuel-guzzling combustion engine, limited noise, and no direct emissions.
Volocopter is being pitched as an urban air taxi, and co-founder Alex Zosel expects the first full Volocopter air taxi systems, with dozens of Volo-Hubs and Volo-Ports, to be in place within the next 10 years, capable of flying 100,000 passengers per hour to their desired destination.
“We expect any air taxi transport system to begin with a point-to-point connection and over time grow into a system of dozens of Volo-Hubs in a city,” Zosel said last week. “Once operated at scale, flying won’t be significantly more expensive than taking a cab, but it will be significantly faster.”
Zozel has already identified Dubai as a partner in the development of Volocopter: in June last year the company signed a deal with the RTA to run a five-year test of the new technology. “We now have a fantastic opportunity to work with the RTA on the entire future ecosystem for safe autonomous air transport, using Dubai as a first showcase project,” he said at the time.
Volocopter will share the skies with the Chinese Autonomous Aerial Vehicle, Ehang184. The two-person passenger drone, also powered solely by electricity, is expected to take flight this year pending approval by regulators. Four battery-powered propellers lift the drone off the ground, and it is equipped with fully automated navigation, according to its developers. It has a cruising speed of up to 100km/h, and can stay in the air for 25 minutes.
Yet travel technology is about far more than autonomous transport. From smart airport strategies to theft-proof currency, ATM has been abuzz with companies looking to disrupt the travel industry space.
Companies including TravelClick, which provides cloud-based and data-driven solutions for hotels to maximize revenue, New York Stock Exchange-listed Travelport and GT Beds, all chose ATM to debut new innovations.
Delegates were also offered their first look at Travelflex, which looks to solve the scalability issues faced by other cryptocoins. The cryptocurrency utilises blockchain technology to make travel more secure by allowing travellers to pay with ‘Travelflex coins’, reducing high fees for exchanging cash abroad, or for using foreign cash machines.
Airports of the future will feature facial recognition to bypass separate immigration, passport control and check-in queues, with Emirates Airline revealing that it is looking to implement biometric authentication at Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest for international travel.
And ATM was the stage for Etihad Airways’ unveiling of its new humanoid robot, named ‘Sophia’. She was named as the United Nations Development Programme’s first ‘innovation champion’ for Asia and the Pacific, and took part in a live one-on-one interview with a human counterpart.
“I would love to see more robots in airports,” Sophia said. "I think we can work alongside human staff and customers to make the overall travel experience even more efficient and enjoyable than it already is.”
As urban hubs expand, and as our limits of travel become infinite, these projects and others like them could have ramifications for traffic congestion, commuting, logistics, the food & beverage industry, and more. The transportation sector is crying out for innovation – and at ATM this week, it was encouraging to see that Dubai is answering the call.