When I first saw it, I immediately thought, “The Jetsons.”
I’m sure many of you remember the futuristic cartoon from Hanna-Barbera about the Jetson family in the year 2062.
Remember how George Jetson went to work every day in his flying car?
Well, the Jetsons’ family vehicle is here.
At the Consumer Electronics Show last month, Chinese firm Ehang unveiled a one-person drone called the Ehang 184. The number refers to 1 person, 8 rotors, and 4 wings.
Now, much like flying cars, you might think this is just a gimmick. Something that looks cool, but will never really take off (if you’ll excuse the pun).
But the innovation works. And it recently raised more than $50 million from venture capitalists to aid further R&D.
No License… No Danger
The personal all-electric drone can carry a payload of up to 220 pounds at speeds of up to 60 mph for 23 minutes. Ehang expects that range to increase as battery technology improves.
And you won’t need a pilot’s license to fly it, either – the Ehang 184 pilots itself.
All you have to do is tell it where to go via a tablet inside the machine. Then the GPS-enabled flight command computer takes over. The drone uses fly-by-wire and networked, encrypted sensors to navigate.
Ehang claims the sensors and computer are smart enough to fly in fairly crowded urban settings and can even refuse to take off if the weather conditions are too hazardous.
The system can also diagnose damage and land safely in emergencies.
And once you’ve reached your destination, the Ehang 184 takes another page from the Jetsons’ book by folding up neatly into a compact size. Standing less than five feet tall, it could be fairly easily stored in or around the home.
The downside right now is that at $300,000, this new innovation is out of most people’s price range. And regulators are a long way from approving the use of such a vehicle, although Ehang has successfully tested the drone with human passengers in China.
So what does the future hold for the Ehang 184?
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Ehang has big plans for its drone – and there are several compelling benefits…
~ Easing Congestion: The company says such drones would alleviate traffic congestion on the ground. This is something we can all identify with – and it’s only getting worse. As the global population rises, we’ll see an even greater number of cars on the roads. Many places can’t build new roads fast enough to handle the burden.
~ Sky Taxis: Ehang plans to sell its drone both to individuals and companies. The companies it has in mind are taxi services that will pick up customers on demand. And given that most cab rides are short, local trips, this technology would seem to be a good fit.
Ehang is already discussing pilot programs with government officials in its native Guangzhou, China, as well as Auckland and Los Angeles.
~ Military: It’s believed that the superb level of flight automation and systems on the Ehang 184 can be upgraded and militarized.
In a way, the technology is similar to the robot K-MAX helicopter, which the Pentagon has deployed in Afghanistan to deliver cargo and supplies. K-MAX is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) and Kaman Corp. (KAMN).
I’m sure some in the Pentagon are worried about China’s capabilities in this area. After all, China is the leader in the drone industry, thanks to its more relaxed rules on testing and flying drones while U.S. regulations stifle innovation.
For now though, this is the latest in airborne innovation geared more towards the consumer market than military. Here’s hoping we’ll be able to harness our inner George Jetson soon.