Drones are currently best at carrying cameras for recording (sometimes-illicit) videos of sunsets, skyscrapers and sporting events, and, well, not much else.
The future, though,will probably see our skies grow increasingly cloudy with swarms of actually-useful drones: Amazon (and many others) want to use drones to carry packages, and quadcopters that follow you around (Intel), launch from the back of trucks (Ford and DJI) and fly like planes (Parrot) have already been unveiled this week at CES in Las Vegas.
But what if drones could carry people, too?
That apparently simple question seems to have been answered, at least hypothetically, by the Chinese drone maker Ehang which has unveiled what it claims is the world’s first autonomous helicopter drone.
The Ehang 184 is a 440-pound, eight-rotor aircraft which the company claims is able to lift a single person 500 metres into the air and fly them to any point on Google Maps, avoiding objects automatically and safely handling take-off and landing (as long as it can be reached within the 23 minutes battery limit). Ehang adds that in the event of your drone experiencing problems, human pilots housed in custom built “command centres” will be able to take over and guide you to safety. Of course, it would have to build such centres first.
Supposedly costing between £130,000 and £200,000 — a price tag which includes air conditioning and in-flight WiFi — Ehang 184 has caused at stir at CES, even though the aircraft has remained static on the show floor and not (yet?) soared into the show air with a human passenger inside.
Ehang’s press site for the 184 craft goes into fairly exacting detail about the drone and the experience of flying one, going so far as to list the size of bag you can carry (16 inches) and the colour of the reading light (‘custom made’). Of course much is unknown about the Ehang 184, too — not least how such a craft hopes to gain certification by international flight authorities in China, first, and then the US, New Zealand and Europe where Ehang plans to launch subsequently. The 184 would be impossible to fly legally in the UK under current regulations, and would need years of testing to get anywhere near a public rollout.
Many are suspicious that Ehang’s plan is much further from completion than the three-to-four months predicted by CFO Shang Hsiao in an interview with WIRED US, or if the idea is mainly promotion for the company’s more straightforward, and apparently fairly average, consumer drone.
Ehang is not the only company working on human-carrying autonomous vehicles, however, with the US Navy and Near Earth Autonomy among those interested in the concept. Amazon is working hard to push regulators to think more creatively about how to build infrastructure for drones. Google is also attempting to develop new communications standards to form the backbone of the system. Someone will eventually build a working human-carrying drone, even if it proves Ehang are slightly more confident about the 184, in January 2016, than they should be.