The EHang 184 AAV is designed to fly a passenger for a trip lasting up to 23 minutes.
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, the battery-powered aircraft will carry a passenger for 23 minutes at about 60 miles per hour.
For decades, people have dreamed of soaring over traffic jams with jetpacks, flying cars and other personal aircraft. EHang’s 184 AAV is joining company like the Icon A5 and Terrafugia flying car that aim to make that personal aviation dream a reality despite difficulties with 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. And 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.
But EHang’s ambition will have to reckon with sharp regulatory limits.
“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.”
For its part, EHang said 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 desired destination on an electronic map on the craft’s tablet interface, and the 184 AAV handles the rest.
Because of those regulatory issues, it’s not yet clear when the craft will go on sale, the company said. Price also is uncertain, but the company hopes more for a product ordinary people can afford than a toy only for billionaires.
The EHang 184 AAV has eight motors powering eight propellers on four folding arms. Its cockpit holds a single passenger weighing up to 220 pounds.
EHang put a major focus on safety, with backup equipment aboard the craft and a fail-safe system that evaluates midflight damage from something like a bird collision and land the 184 AAV immediately if necessary. Passengers also can tap a button to hover midair if necessary.
The machine isn’t 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 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 with a “flying motorcycle” it calls the Hoverbike, often the craft look more like experiments than products. The 54-propeller Swarm seems to be tricky to control.
Dombroff has been leery of some prototypes he’s seen. “It’s like flying a blender,” he said. “God forbid your seatbelt gives way and you find yourself in the midst of all those propellers.”