The first passenger drone is cleared for take-off

Chinese firm Ehang is developing a drone designed to fly one person to their desired destination entirely autonomously. The first test flights have demonstrated that the future of passenger transport is already close at hand.

Simply board, enter your destination and take off – this is Chinese drone manufacturer Ehang’s vision for the future of passenger transportation. The public was astounded when the firm presented the Ehang 184 at the CES 2016 exhibition: it is the first autonomous drone capable of transporting a person. One full battery charge is enough for the drone – which is 1.5 metres tall and weighs just 200 kilograms – to fly for 23 minutes at a speed of 100 km/h. The passenger doesn’t need a pilot’s license either – they simply enter their desired destination using a smartphone and the drone will whisk them up and away to that destination entirely autonomously. “It’s been a lifetime goal of mine to make flight faster, easier and more convenient than ever. The 184 provides a viable solution to the many challenges the transportation industry faces in a safe and energy-efficient way,” says Ehang CEO Huazhi Hu. “I truly believe that Ehang will make a global impact across dozens of industries beyond personal travel. 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.”

An automatic hop from A to B

The Ehang 184 can transport a payload of 100 kilograms. It is driven by eight propellers mounted on four arms. These enable the drone to take off and land vertically – yet folding the arms allows it to be stored in any car parking space, meaning that it doesn’t require anywhere near the amount of space of conventional airport infrastructure. Multiple independent flight control systems navigate the passenger automatically from A to B. In order to do so, they combine real-time data recorded by sensors during the flight and determine the fastest and safest route to the destination. This enables the drone to automatically adapt to wind conditions or any obstacles in the way.

A flight centre controls all drones

In addition, Ehang started constructing a flight control centre in 2016. In the future, it will be permanently in contact with all drones and receive all sensor data from the drone in real time. The communication system of the Ehang 184 is fully encrypted: every drone has its own crypto-key. In an emergency, the control team is able to take any measures necessary to land the drone safely. And even if the drone has been designed to fly in storms and other extreme weather conditions, the control centre should also have the ability to prevent it from taking off as a safety precaution.
The components in all the flight systems feature multiple redundancy: if a component fails, various backups will seamlessly take over. In the event of a malfunction or a bird strike, for instance, the fail-safe system developed by Ehang will immediately take all necessary measures to ensure the passenger’s safety. It automatically assesses the extent of the damage and decides whether the drone needs to land. What’s more, the passenger can bring the drone to a halt with the push of a button in an emergency. In this case, the drone will simply hover in the air.

The goal: approval from aviation authorities

Flight tests have demonstrated that Ehang is serious about its passenger drone: engineers have been able to hone its flight characteristics further and achieve initial successes in point-to-point flying. In the near future, they plan to conduct autonomous flight tests under load in the 4G network. However, there are still numerous technical hurdles to overcome. And regulatory ones too – after all, manned drone flights are still illegal. To this end, Ehang is cooperating with the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS), a test site in the Nevada desert which is approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). NIAS wants to help the Chinese firm navigate the FAA’s regulations. The goal is to have the drone approved by the aviation authority. “This will lay the foundation for its commercialisation and for building up the aerial transportation ecosystem in the future,” says Huazhi Hu, founder and CEO of Ehang.

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