EHANG has released footage and further details of successful manned test flights of the EHang 184 passenger drone.
Your average CEO doesn’t put their money where their mouth is to quite the same extent as EHANG’s Huazhi Hu. No doubt his counterparts at Apple and Tesla try out new products on a regular basis. They might even take them home. But sitting in your company’s passenger drone on one of its maiden flight tests is a different matter.
Other test flight passengers have included the deputy mayor of Guangzhou and more than 150 technical engineers. In total, the Chinese drone manufacturer has conducted thousands of manned flights to date.
The promise of passenger drones has moved from science fiction to reality in recent years. And with heavy investment from the likes of Intel and Boeing, competition is fierce.
EHANG was founded in 2014, and although the company has released a number of smaller autonomous models designed for photography, the people-carrying 184 has always been the one to capture the imagination and make headlines.
The 184, claims EHANG, can take off, land, and navigate autonomously. Human pilots are on hand – albeit remotely – should anything go wrong during a flight.
According to a statement from the company, the 184 has completed a vertical climbing test, reaching a height of 300m, and a loaded test flight carrying approximately 230 kg. The passenger drone has also successfully completed missions spanning 15 km and hit speeds of 130 km/h.
CEO Hu, said “Performing manned test flights enables us to demonstrate the safety and stability of our vehicles.
“What we’re doing isn’t an extreme sport, so the safety of each passenger always comes first. Now that we’ve successfully tested the EHang 184, I’m really excited to see what the future holds for us in terms of air mobility.”
The question remains whether EHANG’s 184 will be ever take off as part of an on-demand public transport system – such as the one planned for Dubai – or if it will become an exclusive toy for the wealthy. In the short term, at least, the latter seems more probable.
The electric 184 and passenger drones like it remain far beyond the boundaries of what current legislation in Europe and North America has been developed for. Proving safety and reliability will be key; a single serious accident would put an end to the dreams of passenger drone advocates – at least in the near future.
“This is a step-by-step process,” said Hu, “and at EHANG, we have our own roadmap. When it comes to the development and application of any transformative technology, first the technological innovation makes an impact, then the relevant policies are created and developed. This goes on to push further development of the industry.”
But there’s no doubt that EHANG is making progress. Test flights aside, last year the company was granted the AS9100C certification – a quality management system recognised globally in the aerospace industry. It is also working closely with the Civil Aviation Administration of China to keep its developments in line with changing regulations.
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Electric, rotary-wing drones have multiple points of failure, and so have everything to prove in commercial applications. But in the short to medium term, the obstacles in the way of passenger drones and other autonomous vehicles are more legislative than technical, in the West at least. And they have a significant social dimension too: 3.4 million people work as drivers in the US alone. Drone cargo flights are a more immediate prospect in the UK, Europe, and the US. However, in countries such as UAE, China, and Japan, passenger drones may be adopted more quickly as they seek to gain a technological edge – come what may.