Autonomous Drone That Seats One Is a Special Kind of Crazy
Not so long ago, the surest sign that you are extremely rich and/or a supervillain was access to a helicopter. Are you the type to leave a meeting and head not to the lobby but to the roof? Is there a chopper bearing your name or logo waiting to whisk you away to your next corporate merger? Do you have a subscription to Blade for your fortnightly jaunts to the Hamptons? Congratulations, you’re in the club.
That club is about to get a little bigger.
Today at CES in Las Vegas, EHang announced what it hopes will become the next big thing in bigwig tech: a passenger-ready drone that will fly you around the city at the touch of a button in its smartphone app. The autonomous ‘copter, which EHang calls 184 and says will cost between $200,000 and $300,000, can carry passengers of up to about 260 pounds for 23 minutes on a single charge.
Here’s how it’s supposed to work: You get in the 440-pound 184, and bring up the large touchscreen inside the one-person-only cockpit. Enjoy the air conditioning and Wi-Fi inside, plug your destination into Google Maps, and off you go. “It’s a fully autonomous flying machine,” says CFO Shang Hsiao, but that’s only partly true. EHang is also planning to set up what it calls “command centers” around the world, a decidedly human group of people who will act as a mix of air-traffic-control and a failsafe. In case, you know, your autonomous flying drone, which has no controls for you to touch whatsoever, stops doing its job. Ideally, though, all the command centers will do is watch. “We will monitor, it’s a whole process, all the way from the takeoff to the landing,” says Hsiao. “They don’t need to do anything at all.”
The Chinese company is best known for the Ghost Drone, a (much smaller) quadcopter that comes with head-tracking VR goggles and an app that lets you tilt your phone to control your drone. The company’s goal has always been to make drones ridiculously easy to fly, which it has always—and somewhat cryptically—taken care to note is a technology that can be applied more widely than consumer drones.
It seems like a logical evolution, in a way: a greener, smaller, automated tool for flying the people who need and can afford it more efficiently to where they’re going. But the list of problems ahead of EHang is long, and getting longer. Before it can launch in the US, EHang needs to work with the FAA. It’ll have to work with equivalent agencies in every other country, most of which have no regulations for anything remotely like the 184, and have far more consumer-focused problems to deal with at the moment. Then they’ll have to build command centers everywhere. Then they’ll have to figure out who’s going to actually buy the 184.
Still, EHang presses on: “After we launch it at CES,” Hsiao says, “the goal is to do the commercialization within three to four months.” Hsiao names hospitals, coast-to-island transit, and even taxi services as potential clients. They’ll launch first in China, along with (it hopes) the US, New Zealand, and some other countries in Europe. When I told Hsiao I was surprised Dubai wasn’t on the list, he laughs. “A lot of people suggest Dubai. And maybe we’ll go over there!” Wherever there are rich people with somewhere to go and maybe a little bit of a danger streak, EHang will be there. Maybe.