In 2016, when a Chinese drone maker came to CES, the world’s largest consumer electronics trade show in Las Vegas, and promised to build a completely autonomous vehicle to carry people or cargo, critics doubted it could overcome technical obstacles. Now, the company says it’s closer to turning the idea into a reality.
According to a video released by Guangzhou-based drone manufacturer Ehang on Tuesday (Feb. 6), it has completed flying tests with over 40 passengers with its Ehang 184 model, including the company’s CEO Hu Huazhi and several government officials in Guangzhou. The drone can carry a single person at up to 130 kilometers (80 miles) per hour, including when a No. 7 typhoon hits—a gust level strong enough to make it hard to walk (link in Chinese). It can also navigate through heavy fog.
In the over 1,000 flying tests, the Ehang climbed to 300 meters and also carried a person weighing 118 kilos (250 pounds) for 23 minutes. The model can run for about half an hour on an hour’s charge, according to Ehang’s website, and costs about $200,000 to $300,000 to produce.
Once boarded, a passenger will see a control center display in front of their seat. It allows a passenger to adjust floodlights and the cockpit’s temperature, and select a location on the map before setting the drone to fly. The model is also equipped with a fail-safe system—if the components malfunction or disconnect, the drone will land in the nearest viable area.
Ehang said the final commercial product would be on the market within a year, according to news portal Chinanews. Hu said the company would like to attract more dealers and partners in 2018 to bring the model to the world. “When we fly Ehang 184 all over the world in 2018, I believe people will see that we are so close to the world in sci-fi films,” Hu said in the video.
Founded in 2014, Ehang has made some high-profile appearances in recent years. In 2017, the company flew 1,000 drones in a simultaneous performance in the southern city of Guangzhou to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year. The performance set a Guinness World Record for the largest number of drones that were airborne simultaneously, breaking the previous record held by Intel when it launched 500 drones in the sky in November 2016. In February 2017, Ehang also signed a deal with Dubai Roads and Transport Authority to develop the Ehang 184 for public transport.
Other companies are also trying to put drones to transportation use around the world. In September 2017, German drone maker Volocopter conducted a five-minute maiden flight carrying Dubai’s crown prince. Volocopter hopes to launch a commercial pilot program with the drone in the early 2020s. In 2016, Uber also publicized a plan to develop an on-demand air transportation program, including using drones.
Regulations, however, could slow down tech companies’ flying taxi ambitions, especially if they want to expand around the world. The US Federal Aviation Administration, for example, requires a spare 20 minutes of fuel for aircraft, which would in theory limit the Ehang 184 to fly for only three minutes with the drone’s current test results, the BBC pointed out.