With a whirling buzz from 18 rotors, the pilotless helicopter gently lifted off and soared into the afternoon sky, the spire of the world's tallest building visible behind it.

The recent unmanned flight by the German-made electric Volocopter represents the latest step in Dubai's pursuit of flying taxis.

Dubai already has invested in another model of a flying, autonomous taxi, and is working to design regulations for their use. Putting more passengers in the air could free its already clogged highways.

"It's public transportation for everybody, so you can use, you can order it, you can pay for the trip and the trip is not much more expensive than with a car," said Alexander Zosel, Volocopter's co-founder.

Advertisement

The Volocopter's designers envision the electric, battery-powered two-seat helicopters taking off and landing from pads set up across the city.

The prototype used in Dubai has a maximum flying time of 30 minutes at 50km/h, with a maximum airspeed of 100km/h.

In practice, however, there's a long way to go. Convincing white-knuckled flyers to get into a buzzing, pilotless helicopter is just the beginning. Unpiloted passenger flights represent a new frontier for regulators. Dubai's Road and Transportation Authority, which has invested an undisclosed sum in Volocopter, says it will work the next five years to come up with laws and develop safety procedures.

Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, says he wants 25 per cent of all passenger trips in the city to be done by driverless vehicles by 2030.

- AP