At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a big step was taken towards a future of innovative transportation when the world’s first passenger drone was brought to the stage by Ehang, a Chinese company with high hopes for their creation. It’s appearance is similar to that of a regular quadcopter; four arms with two propellers apiece and a main body. These arms are designed to fold under the body to fit the drone into a standard-sized parking space, and the cockpit can fit one passenger up to 220 lbs. There is also room for a small backpack, provided there is allowance for extra weight.
The vehicle can reach cruising speeds of 63 mph with a continuous flight time of 23 minutes, making it ideal for medium to short commutes. Also, although typically flown between 1,000 and 1,500 feet, it can safely reach a maximum altitude of 11,500 feet, nearly a third of a regular passenger airplane’s cruising altitude. The computer system is programmed to allow the user to choose their own flight plan, by inputting the destination and making adjustments as necessary. However, besides this, as well as the option to ¨take off¨ and ¨land¨, there is no other user interface, as further control would require the passenger to have a pilot’s license to operate the machine. By limiting the interaction, the drone becomes unmanned and legal for anyone to ride in, but it also presents several safety concerns. If, for any reason, a system should fail, the rider would have no control over the situation or an emergency override. While the drone is designed to operate enough to provide a rough landing with only one arm functioning, the rider is still at risk.
To counteract this, Ehang plans to construct a “command center”, where other operators can take over the system remotely and guide the drone to safety. Doing so would allow 24-hour surveillance for emergencies, and would let the project maintain its ability to operate without a pilot’s license. As this idea is still in theory, though, there are no guarantees that all accidents can be avoided with this system.
Also, regardless of the measures taken for safety, there are still many concerns put forth by both the US and other countries. Britain, who has already banned “hoverboards”, expressed there was little chance that the Ehang 184 would ever be allowed to fly in British airspace, due to the unmanned quality of it.
Other aircraft are also banned from flying over heavily populated areas, and the drone would not be an exception. In the US, several regulatory agencies have protested the institution of the product, citing the already in-place and future rules that this drone would need to meet. The increasing constriction of drone use in the US and abroad is also a concern for the success of the vehicle, and the consequences for crashing a Ehang 184 would be of much more weight than a quadcopter. Meanwhile, self-driving cars are becoming more popular on the road, which could arguably a supporting fact of unmanned flight. You have to keep in mind however, that the margin for error on a flying vehicle versus a terrestrial one is significantly smaller, and a crash at 5,000 feet promises certain fatality.
Taking all this into account, the Ehang 184 is still an impressive creation, which promises a change on the stance of restrictions on automated vehicles in the future. Hopefully, the Ehang 184 will be commercially widespread within the next few decades, but at a staggering price tag of $200,000-$300,000, this incredible experience may be available only to the financially elite for quite some time.