The World’s First Passenger Drone

January 13, 2016 by Murray Slovick

A Chinese company called Ehang is intent on making the world's first passenger drone a supremely cool reality.

Remember when George Jetson sent his kids to school in flying saucer-shaped aerocars with transparent bubble tops? It was a far-out concept in 1962, but now a Chinese company called Ehang is bringing that concept to life with its man-sized drone, the Ehang 184 Autonomous Aerial Vehicle (AAV), that it unveiled at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The passenger would simply enter a location in an app and let the Ehang 184 do the rest, taking off and landing vertically like a helicopter.

The best part is that the drone is large enough to fit a human passenger. It's an electric-powered aircraft that resembles a scaled-up quadcopter and will be able to fly a 220-lb person for 23 minutes, or about 10 miles on a full battery charge, at speeds of up to 62 miles per hour and altitudes ranging from 1,000 to 11,000 feet. When ready for commercial introduction (no timetable was given), it will retail for somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000, which is less than the price of a house in Southern California.

The Ehang 184 Autonomous Aerial Vehicle

Powered by electricity, the Ehang 184 flies with the help of four arms mounted with eight propellers. According to the company, the 184 AAV is designed with full redundancy – if one power system is operating abnormally, the vehicle can still carry out a normal flight plan; similarly, if a propeller malfunctions, it can land in the nearest possible area safely. If any of a number of key components malfunction or disconnect, the company says the aircraft will immediately land in the nearest safe area. In case of an emergency, the passenger also can instruct the system to land. Apart from that the passenger will have no control over the flight.

Weighing only 441 pounds, the tiny autonomous AAV has gull-wing doors, is just 18 feet long, and--in a true homage to George Jetson's collapsible flying saucer--can be folded into a five-foot space for easy transportation.

Ehang says it is in the process of building low-altitude flight command centers which will track the location of its flying vehicles in the coming months. The craft is said to be thunderstorm-proof and able to fly 24/7. During extreme weather conditions, the command center will prohibit the 184 from taking off. Communication with the 184 will be encrypted and each AAV has its own independent key.

It is not known how the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) will respond to the idea of a manned drone given its tight regulation of flight paths for helicopters and planes. Ehang, founded in April 2014 and headquartered in Guangzhou, China (with branches in Beijing, Shanghai and San Francisco) has more than 150 employees and sells a normal-sized drone in 70 countries. It remains to be seen if the company can actually turn its CES concept into a workable flying vehicle, but we're hopeful.