Today, most drones carry GoPros. Tomorrow, drones could be carrying people.
Tons of drones were on display this week at CES. Of all the GoPro toting drones, one in particular stood out, the Ehang 184.
The Ehang 184 isn't your typical consumer drone. For one, it's huge compared to most drones we see getting stuck in neighborhood trees – it would tear straight through one. Second, the size of the Ehang is as it is because it can carry a payload of one human being.
That's right, this is the next big thing in drones. The Ehang 184 is the world's first passenger-ready drone, or PFV (personal flying vehicle). Of course, it is still a drone and will naturally fly itself. But will it really take off?
Yes, it actually will. The Ehang 184 is equipped with a total of eight rotors pushing 142 horsepower. The eight rotors are grouped by two at the four corners of the passenger drone, lifting it up to as high as 11,000 feet while cruising at 62 miles per hour.
On its website, Ehang points out that its AAV (autonomous aerial vehicle) can still fly even if one of its propellers malfunctions. Now that's a bit of a scary situation, but Ehang says its fail-safe system is redundant enough to ensure that the 184 will still be able to land in the nearest safe area.
In fact, Ehang's CEO Huazhi Hu says he began designing the passenger drone after his two pilot friends were killed in plane crashes. He wanted to create a safer mode of transportation for low-altitude flight to get people from one place to another even if those very people didn't have pilots' licenses.
"It's been a lifetime goal of mine to make flight faster, easier and more convenient than ever," he says.
Convenience is part of the main selling point of the Ehang 184. Passengers would simply slide into the drone, turn it on, tap their destination on the 12-inch tablet display and take off.
But as they say, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The Ehang 184 is illegal to operate in the U.S. since it hasn't been tested or approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
It has taken quite a while for the FAA to come up with rules and regulations overseeing unmanned aircraft systems. There are so many flying around U.S. cities and neighborhoods, the agency had to act before little drones started falling on our heads.
There's nothing like the Ehang 184, and the Chinese company will have a bunch of hurdles to overcome before it can finally become airworthy in American skies.
How will it communicate with other aircraft in the sky? Could a remote pilot take over should the user inside the drone have an emergency? If so, how? These and a multitude of questions are what Ehang has to answer.
More telling, however, is that Ehang itself hasn't even shown us a human flying inside the drone. They've shown a video of the thing hovering on its own, but we have yet to see it complete a full flight with a person sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the ride.
A ride on the Ehang 184 won't last too long either. With only 23 minutes of flight time before needing a charge, passengers may not get as far as they'd expect traveling through the air. Besides that, Ehang will also have to prove that its passenger drone is worth $200,000 to $300,000.
Now that is a lot of money for a drone, but for those who can swallow it, they'll have a few extra perks in the Ehang 184, besides some bragging rights. The cabin is air-conditioned and is even decked out with a reading light.
On the outside, the passenger drone has flashing airline signal lights, a headlight, and of course, a downward-facing camera to see what's going on beneath it. Lastly, a passenger could make use of the Ehang 184's small trunk that has enough space for just a 16-inch backpack.
After its launch at CES, Ehang says its goal is to commercialize within three to four months. We imagine that means in China first, and much, much later on in the U.S.