WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Flying cars and flying taxis’s have been tried before, they’ve been scoffed at, but the investment, regulatory and technology environment is now coming together in their favour, one day you’ll be able to take a ride in one.
At Las Vegas’ glitzy Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last year a company Chinese UAV called EHang announced that they had developed a passenger drone, the EHang 184, and that they were going to one of the first companies to get into the newly emerging autonomous sky taxi space. Now, a year on, not only have Uber and Airbus announced similar plans, and a timeline of 2021, but EHang are showing off their new multi-rotor drone undergoing unmanned flight tests and their new NASA-esque control center.
For those of you that might be more inclined to look at this new news with cynicism, and you’d be right to eye these kinds of announcements with cynicism – another company, another entrepreneur trying to change the world – might I remind you that the autonomous car movement only began in earnest in 2010, and now, here we are seven years later with new laws permitting autonomous vehicles on the roads of, for example, Michigan, new regulations, hundreds of trials, and new fleets being rolled out in Pittsburgh, San Franciso and Singapore, to name but a few. Everything has to start somewhere – plus, the fact that Uber is now publishing plans for the space can’t hurt either.
The Ehang 184 uses eight electric motors that power eight propellors on the end of the aircraft’s four arms that are arranged as upper-lower pairs, two to an arm, and the Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) drone looks like a bigger version of the quadcopters we see darting about the skies, but obviously, the main difference is that this one carries people, not just cameras. I like it already. Ehang says the aircraft should be able to fly for 23 minutes, which will take you roughly 20 miles with a payload capacity of 264 pounds but at a cost of $200,000 it’s not priced for the average punter, however, prices will come down and looking at the business models that are appearing it’s much more likely that these types of products will be bought by corporations, like Uber, who are already looking at the 184, who want to offer sky taxis’ as a service.
The video above shows the Ehang 184 conducting multiple flight tests including takeoff, landing, altitude, and night flying tests and you can also see an early version of their control center where Ehang plans to monitor all flights in real time and communicate with passengers in normal flight or emergency situations. But there’s still a lot to do, showing that it can fly and manoeuvre is one thing, but how does it handle emergency situations, like bird strikes, or engine failures, and then there’s the question of navigation. All of these are solvable of course, but they’ll take the company time to work through.
EHang have made phenomenal progress in the past year but we’re probably still at least seven years away from seeing them buzz around our roof tops.