The Jetsons never had it this good — Welcome to the Ehang 184
Wednesday, May 04, 2016
Imagine a drone you can sit in. The passenger selects a destination from a 12-inch tablet, and the drone flies itself there.
I envision something from the TV show "The Jetsons" — the tune is even playing in my head. But I wonder, are we ready for unmanned passenger flights? We may be soon.
The Ehang 184 was unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show this January, and the passenger drone looks nothing like a craft from "The Jetsons." Made of a composite material of carbon fiber and epoxy with aerial aluminum alloy, it's closer in style to a helicopter than an airplane, but much smaller.
Created by Chinese entrepreneurs, Ehang Inc, the Ehang 184 uses all-electric, 100 percent green technology with a total energy consumption of 14.4 kilowatts per hour. It's air-conditioned and has a small reading light and a small trunk for a 16-inch travel bag.
With a weight limit of 220 pounds, the battery life lasts about 23 minutes per ride with a maximum speed of 62 miles per hour. Charging takes two hours for a fast charge and four for a full charge.
Is it safe? The Ehang 184 can fly between 300 meters and 3.5 kilometers in altitude, but it has no physical controls whatsoever for an emergency landing by the passenger. If three of the four arms fail (six out of eight propellers), the Ehang will "spiral to the ground" — it doesn't glide — which sounds extremely unpleasant. What if it's at its highest altitude?
Ehang claims more than a hundred hours of testing, and some of those hours with a human in the pod. The company also claims that if the drone needs a pilot in an emergency, one of the emergency centers (not yet built) will have someone able to remotely fly the craft.
What happens if a strong wind gust pushes the drone off course — it weighs only 440 pounds — or the 4G network goes down? Even if the passenger could escape and the 16-inch bag was a parachute, the blades are right there!
The FAA took a long time to decide on unmanned drones, and recently came up with a registration system, Unmanned Aircraft Systems, but testing or approval of the Ehang 184 from the FAA has not happened yet and is still way off.
What are the possibilities? Farmers could check crops; wildlife biologists could watch or count animals. Emergency response could help locate stranded hikers, assess a situation or even provide preliminary care until backup support arrived.
Or, maybe it can be just quick way to get across town if you can afford the price tag: between $200,000 to $300,000. Ehang 184 is a few years off before it really takes flight, but we could begin seeing them in use soon.
Meet George Jetson!
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