Ehang’s new human-carrying, eight-propeller, fully battery-powered ‘drone’ has caused quite a stir at CES — and for good reason. The vehicle is an almost unnervingly perfect mashup of a helicopter and a quadcopter (Quelicopter?) that possesses that greatest of trade show assets: Visual congruity with existing technologies. Still, actual tech aside, it really doesn’t conform to the American model of aviation and runs the risk of crashing into Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. Whether that’s a design of legislative problem remains to be seen.
The Ehang 184 may be the slickest personal flying machine to almost make it to market yet and it may augur the advent of the aerial commute, which, it can’t be emphasized enough, would be very cool. But the drone’s most impressive properties are probably its down fall. According to Phys.org:
“[The drone] is designed to fly about 1,000 to 1,650 feet off the ground with a maximum altitude of 11,500 feet and top speed of 63 miles per hour.”
For some perspective, One World Trade Center — the tallest building in the Western hemisphere — is 1,776 feet tall. Though helicopters do currently fly at these altitudes, they generally do so quite a bit faster and they’re subject to all manner of requirement. There are no literal strings attached, but copters of all kinds are regulated to the point that owning one would seem like an act of extreme acquisitiveness, not practicality.
It’s also not clear whether the Ehang 184, which flies itself, has quality sensors or adequate built in A.I. The outward It may seem more important for a car to be able to detect obstacles and take evasive maneuvers, but the sky is full of obstacles like birds and trees and buildings. And with a price tag expected between $200,000 and $300,000, if it even reaches American shores, it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing a flood of Ehangs overheads.
Lehang claims that the most dangerous part of modern flying is human error, and their drone actually improves on this defect by removing the part of people altogether. The passenger — or do you say pilot? — would only be able to order an immediate landing, leaving the route planning and execution to the ship’s on-board computers.
On the company’s website, the drone is hailed as ‘thunderstorm-proof’ and capable of flying ‘24/7, though Lehang also plans for a ‘low-altitude’ command center that will have certain over-riding controls of the drone, including prohibiting takeoffs during extreme weather and guiding it to the ground in the case of a malfunction.
This drone may be high-tech, but as far as I can tell, it’s still a pilot’s world.