Think Amazon delivery drones are a radical idea? A Chinese startup called Ehang has used the same technology to build an aircraft to carry a passenger more than 20 miles.
The EHang 184 AAV is a one-person pod lifted by eight rotors mounted in pairs on four folding arms -- thus the number 184. Announced Wednesday at the CES tech show in Las Vegas, the battery-powered aircraft is designed to carry a passenger for 23 minutes at about 60 miles per hour. The machine pilots itself.
For decades, people have dreamed of soaring over traffic jams with jetpacks, flying cars and other personal aircraft. Some of designs are more traditional, like the two-person Icon A5 that lands on water or dry ground, and some are more futuristic, like the Terrafugia Transition, meant for both roadways and airways. Regardless, making that personal aviation dream a reality means working through difficulties intertwining cost, safety, engineering and regulations.
"The 184 provides a viable solution to the many challenges the transportation industry faces in a safe and energy efficient way," said EHang Chief Executive Huazhi Hu in a statement. Though it's initially aimed at commuters and adventuresome people, "EHang will make a global impact across dozens of industries beyond personal travel," he said.
Before that can happen, EHang's whirlybird ambitions will have to reckon with sharp regulatory constraints.
"It isn't going to be that you get one under the Christmas tree, take it outside, and go flying. You're still talking about what amounts to a manned aircraft," more like a helicopter than a drone, said Mark Dombroff, an aviation attorney for law firm Dentons, who previously represented the Federal Aviation Administration and Justice Department. "They're not going to be able to sell this without having some sort of airworthiness certificate, probably experimental."
EHang said that it's working with multiple governments around the world and that no pilot's license will be required to use the 184 AAV. Passengers navigate by tapping a destination on an electronic map on the aircraft's tablet interface, and the 184 handles the rest.
Because of those regulatory issues, it's not yet clear when the craft will go on sale, the company said. Pricing also is uncertain, but the company hopes the machine will be something ordinary people can afford more than a toy only for billionaires.
EHang said it hasn't skimped on safety, packing backup equipment aboard the craft. A fail-safe system would evaluate midflight damage from something like a bird collision and could land the 184 AAV immediately if necessary. Passengers also can tap a button to hover midair if necessary.
The machine isn't exactly a drone, which by definition is an unmanned vehicle, but it's benefiting from the same combination of computing and aeronautic technology that's fueling the drone revolution. In most drones, four or more rotors provide upward thrust, and a computer controls their speed carefully to tilt and steer the craft. Sensors can precisely measure the aircraft's location and orientation.
The company is showing off a model that is "fully ready to fly," but said that a demonstration at CES was a no-go because of regulatory limits.
The 184 AV weighs 440 pounds and can carry 220 pounds. Its eight motors produce 106 watts of power. Range is variable, but 23 minutes at 60 miles per hour would mean a theoretical range of 23 miles.
Adventurous engineers have built personal aircraft with drone technology before. Though at least one company, Malloy Aeronautics, is serious about a "flying motorcycle" it calls the Hoverbike, often the craft look more like experiments than products. The 54-propeller Swarm, for instance, seems tricky to control.
Dombroff has been leery of some prototypes he's seen. "It's like flying a blender," he said. "God forbid your seat belt gives way and you find yourself in the midst of all those propellers."