Chinese company Ehang caught our eye at CES earlier year, with the firm unveiling an autonomous quadcopter prototype it said was capable of ferrying human passengers without a pilot. We were wary of these unproven claims, but Ehang is obviously forging ahead with the vehicle. The company recently reached an agreement with Nevada's governor's office to develop the Ehang 184 at the state's FAA-approved UAV test site. However, this news should be taken with a pinch of salt: the Ehang 184 still isn't approved for testing by the FAA itself, and the company has yet to show a fully working prototype.
Ehang says it wants to start tests some time in 2016
The Nevada Governor's Office of Economic Development (GOED) describes the deal with Ehang as a "historic teaming agreement" that will "provide the foundation for collaboration [...] in the areas of flight testing, training, and development." However, this is not the same as FAA approval. In a press statement, the GOED's Tom Wilczek says the state needs to "help guide Ehang through the FAA regulatory process," while Ehang's founder and CEO Huazhi Hu describes the deal as a "big step for Ehang 184 to move forward to government regulatory approval." Ehang says it expects to begin testing at the FAA-approved site some time in 2016.
Ehang's vision for personal helicopters that fly you smoothly to your destination is certainly compelling, but there are many difficulties facing the company. Creating an autonomous navigation system that can detect small obstacles like power lines is one difficulty, then there's the problem of creating and regulating fixed paths for air travel, also known as skyways. Battery life is another challenge (Ehang claims the 184 has a maximum flight time of 23 minutes), as are robust safety systems. Essentially, while it's fine to be excited by Ehang's ideas, the company still has a lot to prove before we believe the 184 is a viable mode of transportation.