Vodafone has signed a deal with a Chinese flying car company as part of its ambition to develop an air traffic control system for drones and aerial taxis.
The British-based telecoms group will supply EHang with sim cards to connect its electric one- or two-seat drones to its network in Germany.
“This is a significant step forward in advancing urban air mobility in Europe, with the goal being to create a new traffic ecosystem,” EHang’s founder Hu Huazhi told the Financial Times.
Mr Hu envisages his drones being used to transport everything from emergency medical materials to commuting passengers.
EHang says it has already done “thousands” of test flights in China and other countries, including in Europe, but has not yet done so in Germany. Its tests are most advanced in Guangzhou, the southern Chinese city where the company is headquartered.
Vodafone has already held talks with European regulators to develop a drone management system in the style of air traffic control. The telecoms company has carved out a niche in drone technology in recent years as it looks for uses for its 5G technology.
Last year, Vodafone unveiled a drone detection system that can protect areas around power stations or airports from rogue devices.
It is also a large player in the automotive market with 22m vehicles connected to its network that sends digitised information to insurance companies and to help track stolen vehicles.
The EHang deal has been signed with Vodafone Germany, based in Düsseldorf, which has become a hub for the group’s technology development. It is supplying 5G connectivity to control the manufacturing lines for the eGo driverless car factory in Aachen.
More companies are developing passenger drones to fight for a slice of a potential huge market for flying taxis.
Bristol-based company Vertical Aerospace this week revealed that it had completed a test flight of its Seraph “vertical take off and landing” vehicle in Wales while Uber has pledged to spend €20m in France to develop the technology.
It is early days for aerial taxis. Limited trials have taken place but a commercial launch of drone-based vehicles might still be a long way off due to the length of time needed to create a regulatory framework.
Vodafone said it would take until 2025 for these aerial vehicles to launch in Germany.
Mr Hu said that Vodafone’s deployment of 5G networks will be “a key infrastructure component for the commercial deployment of autonomous aerial vehicles, since it enables take-offs and landings that are precisely controlled within centimetres”.