It seems like only yesterday that we witnessed the birth of a new phenomenon, when drones reached the commercial market, but here we are again with the Ehang 184 ‘Low Altitude Autonomous Air Vehicle’ (AAV). Ehang unveiled their Drone 2.0 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Their product is supposedly able to carry one adult 20 miles at an altitude of 3000 metres completely autonomously. The passenger simply selects a destination and the vehicle does the rest, guided by onboard scanners.
The company’s launch video explains how their founder, Shang Wen Hsiao, lost his best friend to a helicopter crash in 2011. Shortly afterwards, his own helicopter suffered the same fate. After this, Hsiao became convinced that automated flight was the only way to guarantee safety. In 2013 he left his job to work on the 184 AAV and designed a self-navigation system and propulsion based on coaxial helicopter blades. Cut to a montage of testing in scrublands, garages and the dark. Prototypes are shown being assembled and ‘flown’ in factories while men in white coats nod their approval. The final shot shows a drone purposely approaching a CGI city skyline like a bright new future flying in to greet us.
I really wish I could end this article there but there are a number of things standing in the way of success. Chief amongst them is the issue of regulation. As things stand, the drone would be illegal in most countries for very sensible reasons. This is no small obstacle, especially considering regulators’ response to the ‘Swegway hoverboard’ which allowed the user to simultaneously attention-seek whilst moving at walking pace. Personal transport’s answer to Crocs was promptly banned by the highways agency; its aerial equivalent faces a more serious challenge.
Safety is an obvious concern, and the 184 boasts a lot of failsafe features, such as extra power supplies, rotors, pre-programmed emergency landing and remote intervention from hypothetical air traffic control centres. Software design is notorious for its trial and error and a cargo of human life means that one or two serious accidents is enough to set the project back years.
The prohibitive price tag – £120,000 to £200,000 – combined with the consumer interest needed to justify the required infrastructure is both the most difficult and most boring obstacle to Ehang’s success.
There is palpable scepticism surrounding this, however this is still a new phenomenon. But I believe that phenomenon is the first Concept Drone not likely to reach mass-production, yet excellent for demonstrating a company’s creativity and engineering prowess. Ehang also sell standard sized drones to a saturated market. Their promotional material does not engender much faith in their commitment to implementation, betrayed by the syntax and phrasing of a spam email (for example, 184 is described as ‘the eco-est’). Their promotional film sets cumbersome sentences to a rousing soundtrack. Most damning is that no-one was actually seen riding in Ehang’s drone at the conference in Vegas.
Perhaps I am being too cynical and the corporation is above manipulating our childlike wonderment for the sake of online exposure. The technology involved is still impressive and automated single person air travel seems almost inevitable. This may not be it, but someone had to take the first step.