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Chinese Company Rushes to Develop Autonomous Passenger Drone

Autonomous drone transport approaches a major milestone: personal transport capable of fully autonomous flight.

Dubai, famous for its luxury amenities and the Burj Khalifa, may be aiming to adopt personal drones as a form of transport—possibly as soon as this summer.

The full-electric passenger drones are being developed by Chinese company Ehang and aim to be capable of fully autonomous flight. The particular drone in question, the Ehang 184, will be capable of carrying a passenger up to 220 lbs in weight along with some light cargo. Passengers will be able to select pre-determined destination stops within 30 miles via an onboard tablet interface. Ehang projects that each drone will be able to remain in flight for up to 25 minutes in between charges.
According to Ehang's website, the passenger drone will have an average cruise speed of nearly 40 mph and fly a maximum of 11,500 feet above sea level (for reference, commercial airplane flies at an altitude of approximately 29,000 feet) using eight motors with 152 kW output. The drone prototype features a maximum battery capacity of 17 kW*H and can charge fully within four hours (50 mA) or one hour (200 mA).

The Ehang 184 autonomous aerial vehicle on show at CES 2016. Photo courtesy of EHANG.

So how does Ehang plan on making sure these drones are safe? To start, each drone will have encrypted communication and a unique identifying key. Ehang plans on implementing 24/7 flight command centers to control the passenger drones and ensure that they don't take off in unsafe conditions such as storms. This means that the drones will be capable of fully autonomous flight, but they can also be switched to a mode of remote control where trained professionals could intervene if necessary.

The drones will also feature multiple redundancies in each system to ensure component failure does not result in a complete system failure. They will also have options for passengers to halt a flight and remain suspended until further instructions are given.

How Close to Reality Is This, Really?

An incomplete model of the Ehang 184 was on show at CES 2016 and, so far, only conceptual footage and videos have surfaced of the drone in action. That being said, it is difficult to say how close to reality the Ehang 184 is to being in production and delivering passengers.

As a result, not too many other technical features are known about the drone, including what kind of software it is using for navigation. Needless to say, many are quite skeptical of the proposal, with Verge going so far as to call it a "boondoggle."

Despite the general consensus that the Ehang quad-copter is a fancy-shmancy piece of tech only worthy of the finest Dubai playboys, others disagree. In an article for Forbes, Gregory S. McNeal highlighted that, counter to intuitive analysis, a drone-filled future might be the more affordable option. Such a future would allow drone manufacturers to sidestep the steep cost of entering the automotive industry.

The concept is certainly alluring, and one can easily envision a Jetsons-style future in which everyone’s commute to work is done in their own personal aerial vehicle. For those living in large cities where traffic congestion is a problem, the thought of being able to fly to work has extreme appeal. Additionally, the autonomous nature of the drone also means that a user does not have to obtain a pilot’s license to use it. The drones are being designed to be capable of fully autonomous flight, but the control centers mentioned above would be staffed with personnel trained to operate the drones remotely if necessary.

 

Airspace Regulations for Drones

Technical capabilities aside, there are still many legal hurdles to overcome when it comes to drones and UAVs. Currently, there are a number of restrictions on the operation of drones in the USA. In particular, there certainly is not any sort of legislation currently in place that could accurately determine the legality and regulations in which a passenger drone can operate in the USA, let alone a fully autonomous drone.

The automotive industry is still struggling to navigate new regulatory territories to get fully-autonomous vehicle fleets on the road. Although as set up updated rules on the regulations imposed on autonomous vehicles has been released, getting manufacturers to comply with them, which include releasing large amounts of data to the government, is continuing to be a challenge. Add to that the complexities of operating in airspace and the possibility of increasing air collisions and it certainly seems that it will still be a while until fully-autonomous passenger drones become a thing in North America.

It is expected that if these issues are not ironed out by this summer when the drones go live in Dubai, that there will be some updates on how leading manufacturers plan to tackle these challenges. So far, however, no information has been released on how Dubai plans to manage a sky full of car-sized drones if the Ehang 184 catches on.



Featured image used courtesy of EHANG.

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