Chinese drone-maker Ehang Inc has unveiled a first-of-its-kind human-carrying craft at the CES 2016. The Ehang 184 promises to change the future of transportation, creating potential for an air taxi, if you will.
Ehang co-founder and chief financial officer Shang Hsiao said, "The 184 provides a viable solution to the many challenges the transportation industry faces in a safe and energy-efficient way.The 184 is evocative of a future we've always dreamed of and is primed to alter the very fundamentals of the way we get around."
The Chinese company is best known for the Ghost Drone, a much smaller quad-copter that comes with head-tracking virtual reality goggles and an app that lets you tilt your phone to control your drone. Ehang 184 is expected to cost between $200,000 and $300,000 (£137,201–£205,802).
How it works
The drone, about four-and-a-half feet tall and weighing 440lbs, is fully automated with the passenger having no controls. Passengers just need to enter a destination on Google Maps synced with its system software, which can be accessed from a user's mobile device. The drone will then fly itself to the destination.
The auto transport mechanism means there would be no way to control the drone should a system failure occur. But the company insists the craft is equipped with fail-safe systems including multiple backups for each flight system, as well as a feature that will force the craft to land immediately if a passenger's life is at risk.
The cabin inside can accommodate one person weighing up to 260 pounds and will have air conditioning, reading lights and Wi-Fi. A single passenger can be transported for a maximum of 23 minutes at a speed of 60mph on a single charge.
The 184 has propellers that can be folded up to fit in a single parking spot. Tech analysts say it is more like a quad-copter, which is considered safer than helicopters because of its numerous propellers.
Regulatory hurdles ahead
Although the idea looks promising, aviation and security regulations pose challenges to the innovation. For basic operations Ehang will need to set up command centres around the world to exercise air-traffic control. It will also require clearances from any air-traffic control authority before it can enter that air space.
Before everything else, it needs permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly in US skies. Under a new US law, owners and pilots of drones must register with the agency on or before 19 February 2016. Moreover, FAA guidelines currently only permit drones weighing between 0.55lbs and 55lbs to fly for personal use. The 184 weighs a much heavier 440lbs.
A drone of its size will also need special permits in the UK, where no registration is required for buying or flying a drone weighing less than 20kg. To know more about drone rules in UK see this video.
Although China's rules on testing and flying drones are more permissive than the US, Ehang will still need a variety of clearances before it can fly. The company said it will first launch in China, while later pursuing the US, New Zealand and some other countries in Europe.
Chinese companies hold the pole position in consumer drone sales with DJI, the company that made Phantom, the first mass-market camera drone, the biggest consumer drone company in the world.