If you remember the Ehang 184 autonomous passenger drone from CES a couple of years ago, you would be forgiven for thinking that this was yet another tech company wheeling out a headline-grabbing product that would never be seen in the real world, let alone flying across fields or over lakes.
Well, Ehang is attempting to confound the naysayers by releasing the first ever footage showing the 184 whisking actual human beings into the great blue yonder. Some 40 “passengers” were filmed enjoying their aerial excursions, including the deputy mayor of Guangzhou as well as (putting his courage where his money is) Ehang founder and CEO Huazhi Hu.
Though the footage shows the drone coping with clear and foggy conditions during flight, according to the manufacturer the 184 series is “capable of carrying a single person at up to 130km/h and in force 7 typhoon conditions”.
In 2016 in Las Vegas, Ehang – a company best known for its Ghost Drone quadcopter – stated its self-navigating craft will cost between $200,000 and $300,000 (£143,000 to £241,000) and be capable of carrying single passengers of up to about 118kg for 23 minutes on a single charge. The drone itself comes in at around 200kg.
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Once the finished 184 arrives, passengers will get inside and bring up the large touchscreen running Google Maps to designate where they wish to fly to within the craft’s designated range. Then off you go, availing yourself of the air conditioning and on-board Wi-Fi as you sit back and watch the world go serenely by.
But despite the liberal use of the all-important word “autonomous” in the company literature, Ehang is perhaps wisely planning to set up “command centers” dotted around the world to aid their 184s in navigation. This actually means groups of people on the ground who will supposedly be the company’s version of air-traffic-control as well as a failsafe in case things don’t go to plan.
Referring to the new manned test-flight videos, Huazhi said: “What we’re doing isn’t an extreme sport, so the safety comes first. We’ve been developing and testing aerial vehicle technology for some time now, and we’re finally at the test flight stage for the AAV.”
Ehang says its more than 150 technical engineers have conducted thousands of test flights, including a vertical climbing test to 300m, a loaded test flight carrying approximately 230kg, a routed 15km test flight as well as a high-speed cruising test that supposedly hit that top speed of 130km/h.
As for when the drone will be commercially available? Ehang won’t commit to a firm date with Huazhi saying only that they “have a road map”. Ehang also plans to “improve the passenger experience” and add in an optional manual control, giving owners or users the opportunity to pilot the 184.
Perhaps looking to compete with the Volocopter 2X, an alternative two-passenger drone in advanced stages of development from a German company, Ehang has stated it is also testing its own two-seat passenger drone capable of carrying a payload of up to 280kg.