CES has already given us plenty of news about drones and cars, it’s even given us drones that launch from the back of trucks! Both industries are working toward the same end goal — completely autonomous vehicles that can carry passengers or packages. And they are relying on a similar set of fundamental technologies — from computer vision and artificial intelligence to a suite of sensors for positioning and navigation. But we rarely think of them as overlapping.
That will certainly change after this morning. Ehang, a Chinese drone company, announced a new product at CES it's calling the Ehang 184, an all electric quadcopter scaled up from a drone so that it's large enough to carry a passenger. Ehang calls it an autonomous aerial vehicle, I prefer personal pilotless helicopter, but if you need to explain what it is to anyone, just say it's a driverless car for the sky.
Ehang says the 184, which is all electric, can carry a single passenger up to 10 miles or roughly 23 minutes of flight. The person in the cockpit doesn’t do any piloting, they just input their destination and enjoy the ride. The aircraft claims to be able to autonomously take off, fly a route, sense obstacles, and land. And if anything goes wrong, a human pilot is supposed to step in and take over the controls from a remote command station.
"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."
If this sounds crazy and illegal, well that's because currently it is. Right now Ehang has no plans to fly it in the US, where it hasn’t been tested or approved as airworthy by the FAA, so unfortunately a live demo at CES isn't happening. It says it has completed successful flight in China, but the video the company provided never showed the aircraft in flight with a human inside. The photos it supplied were mostly renders or images of the craft that lacked any other objects for scale.
Its press materials and statements raise lots of questions. Could a remote pilot really take over in an emergency and hope to successfully navigate a landing? How does it communicate with other aircraft? The 23 minutes of flight time is given only for a flight at "sea level," so what is the maximum height at which this aircraft can function effectively?
Ehang did show off a fully built unit this morning at CES, and it's promising to deliver a working unit for sale some time this year. But at this point we're taking it all with a big grain of salt. It's probably best to think of the Ehang 184 the same way we do a concept car, a prompt for exploring the delightful potential of a world in which you could hail a tiny helicopter as easily as an Uber.
Sanjiv Singh, a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, has worked on a flying car project for DARPA and currently leads a startup, not affiliated in any way with Ehang, that develops autonomous rotorcraft. That company's work with the US Navy shows, seen in the video above, it is indeed possible to design an autonomous helicopter that can make sense of obstacles like a tree line and navigate to a landing on its own. But Singh says Ehang will face additional challenges because it is proposing a smaller, more delicate craft.
"If you're flying on what is essentially a scaled up quadrotor, something as simple as the temperature can have a big impact," says Singh. When it gets hot, the air gets thinner, and the rotors produce less thrust. "The aircraft has to be smart enough to know that on a hot day, it will be harder to clear that tree line that it would be on a cold day. And it has to be able to make those measurements in real time, for air temperature changing at different altitudes."
The Ehang 184 would have to be able to detect very small obstacles, like power lines or wires that came loose in a storm. And even if it achieved this level of computer vision and autonomous navigation, for now, the idea that you could input any destination and simply head there with the push of a button is unrealistic. "With airports, you have fixed routes and can ensure that those routes, and the places where you take off and land, are clear," says Singh. "Until we have built a more robust set of skyways, a craft like this would be limited in terms of where it can travel and what path it can take."
Luckily for Ehang, massive companies like Amazon are already pushing for a new era of skyways designed with autonomous aircraft in mind. Amazon has proposed carving out different layers of the sky for a variety of drone activity. It's easy to imagine one swath being dedicated to drones with packages, another for drones that carry people. Meanwhile, Google is working on a smaller, cheaper version of the ADS-B technology which would allow autonomous aircraft to communicate their position to one another the same way commercial jetliners do.
Right now the amount of intellectual and economic resources flowing into driverless cars is far larger than what is being directed at personal autonomous aircraft. But Singh believes that commercial and military operations will continue to drive the progress of autonomous aircraft, and that those advances will eventually trickle down to consumer vehicles. "If small, autonomous aircraft were to become commonplace, it certainly could have a major impact on transportation, and our society," says Singh. While driverless cars might reduce car ownership and encourage ride-sharing, there would still be times of peak demand when the number of cars needed on the road would create traffic. Move some of those same rush hour passengers into the air, and suddenly it’s a whole new ball game.
Will Ehang be the company to spark that revolution? So far it's only made a standard consumer drone, The Ghost, a unit with fairly mixed reviews. It's exciting to see a company making such bold claims here at CES, and the concept is certainly a fascinating and feasible one. This is Vegas, but we wouldn't bet on a fully functional and FAA approved version of the Ehang 184 arriving anytime soon.