Chinese drone making company Ehang recently showed off one of the most impressive contraptions at the CES convention in Las Vegas: a manned drone. It can fly as high as 11,500 feet, top speed of 63mph and a range of 20 minutes worth of powered flight. It can fit one person and a small backpack. It looks and sounds impressive, but is the world ready for it? For sure no, but the prospects for the future already sound appealing. Finally, the age The Jetsons foretold might finally be nigh.
The other day I was listening to a speech by Peter Thiel, a serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist who, in a moment of disappointment with today's technological progress, famously said: "They promised us flying cars, but all we got was 140 characters." Hilarious, but so true! What Thiel was alluding to was that while computers and information technology have made fantastic leap forward, the same thing can't be said about other fields of science where progress looks more like incremental than exponential. Humans haven't been to the moon for decades, and it still takes just as long to fly from New York to Paris as in the 1970s. The trip actually takes longer if you consider the Concorde's decommissioning.
We can't seem to trust governments to change the world, considering funding seems to go more and more to 'safe' research - the kind that's expected to work. So, it's up to entrepreneurs like Elon Musk -- who wants make a pressurized tube called the Hyperloop that will get you from L.A. to San Francisco in 35 minutes flat -- to change transportation. Huazhi Hu, the EHang CEO, is also up to bold plans.
Imagine leaving for work not in a vehicle, but in a fully autonomous flying drone that will get you there in no time. That's what we were promised at some point, and Huazhi wants to deliver it.
'Mass-adoption of the 184 has the potential to streamline congested traffic and dramatically reduce the kinds of accidents associated with any human-operated vehicle,' the firm claims.
'It's been a lifetime goal of mine to make flight faster, easier and more convenient than ever. The 184 provides a viable solution to the many challenges the transportation industry faces in a safe and energy efficient way,' said EHang CEO Huazhi Hu.
'I truly believe that EHang will make a global impact across dozens of industries beyond personal travel.'
'The 184 is evocative of a future we've always dreamed of and is primed to alter the very fundamentals of the way we get around.'
Right now, I expect everyone is worried about safety, as they should be. According to EHang, the manned aerial drone project was started in the first place because current helicopters are too unsafe. Huazhi's co-founder died in 2011 due to such an accident, and the unfortunate event eventually spurred the company to develop a new generation of propelled flight. The company says that if three of the four arms have their six propellers disabled, the final arm's working propellers can ensure a rough landing by spiraling toward the ground.
Of course, this is still just a prototype. From a Microsoft Surface tablet, the passenger selects his flight plan then only hits "take off" or "land". That's it. At this time, there are no backup controls and this sounds scary, but nothing engineering can't solve.