Flying Cars: The Tech Taking Flight

Article posted: July 25th, 2016

Autonomous Flying Car: From Sci-Fi to Sci-Fact

At the beginning of the film "Bladerunner," Harrison Ford soars over Los Angeles, cruising in a capsule dotted with glowing lights. During "The Fifth Element," Bruce Willis is pursued through the crowded New York City airspace – one of the first ever reboots of the hackneyed ‘police chase’ scenes by taking it from ground-based and 2D and putting it in the sky as 3D. Tom Cruise is just one of thousands of passengers ported around Washington, D.C., in

"Minority Report," riding one of the automated cars that glide through streets that operate more like pneumatic tubes than our current, archaic-seeming asphalt.

The self-driven flying car that once seemed like a sci-fi pipe-dream has just materialized into reality. At CES 2016, EHang introduced a pilotless passenger drone that can transport a single passenger weighing up to 220 pounds. That's right, the same fundamental design behind drones being used to carry GoPro camera rigs by hobbyists, photographers and tech-savvy teenagers, can be scaled-up to haul people as well.

Granted, the EHang 184 Autonomous Aerial Vehicles are much larger and have some more sophisticated navigational brains, yet the aerodynamic concept and design is comparable. The name 184 stands for one passenger in a vehicle with four arms and eight propellers. At 152.2 inches long, it's about the same size as a Honda Fit. A frame mostly made out of carbon fiber and aluminum makes it possible for the drone to fly at 62 miles per hour. And like the smaller drones, the EHang 184 isn't built to be steered by its physical occupant. How does it work? The rider steps inside, closes the door, taps on a tablet telling it to start and then it takes off. The vehicle is controlled by EHang's "low-altitude control center."

Flight on Hold

Step back out of your imaginary Delorean, Marty McFly, before you head out to zip through the skies. EHang's potentially game-changing prototype raises several questions. First, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hasn't approved drones for passengers yet, and any new vehicle class would probably go through several rounds of exhaustive and time-consuming review. With the complexities inherent in both passenger flights and the three dimensions of commercial or passenger-based aviation, safety reigns supreme. The organization has already increased regulations for unmanned drones: In late 2015, the FAA began requiring registration of drones weighing more than a half-pound, up to 55 pounds.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta gave a speech to CES attendees in which he explained that regulating drones wouldn't be a simple process. "Maintaining the highest levels of safety requires us to constantly evolve in our approach," he said.

The EHang 184 prototype also has technical limitations. The aircraft can only fly for 23 minutes before the battery needs to be recharged, which requires at least two hours. That means if the trip is more than 10 minutes each way, a charging station needs to be waiting at the end of the ride. Battery technology is constantly improving, but it may be some time before anyone is flying a passenger drone from LA to NYC (or even SF) on a whim. But of course the exponential nature of technological improvements means that the timeline involved may just be exponentially shrinking.

A Big Business About to Take Off

People en masse are starting to foresee a drone-filled future arriving, and in first, business and economy classes. In 2017, U.S. consumer drone spending will double to $953 million, according to the Consumer Technology Association. ABI Research expects that global expenditures on drones will reach $8.4 billion in 2018. Of course, only a fraction of that money is being spent on passenger drones, but the market niche undoubtedly has monstrous potential.

The Teal Group predicts the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) industry will see dramatic growth in the next 10 years, with spending doubling from $2.8 billion in 2014 to $5.6 billion in 2023. EHang has discussed pilot programs with government officials in Los Angeles, Auckland and China about a fleet of 184s that would fly passengers around in air taxis (no Bruce Willis required). The company has raised over $50 million in two funding rounds, although given that there are several other (smaller) drones in the product line, only a fraction of that money will be spent on the 184.

It's hard to believe the company that has made passenger drones a reality began as an Indiegogo campaign: EHang first came to fame when it posted its app-controlled Ghost Drone, which was designed to make aerial photography easy. The 184 takes some of the lessons of the Ghost Drone and expands upon them on a much larger, arguably much more momentous scale.

Sky-High Dreams

EHang's autonomous vehicle isn't the only unpiloted aircraft in testing. The twin-propeller Centaur plane has been testing at FAA-approved sites. John Langford, CEO of Aurora Flight Services Corporation, which manufactures the "optionally piloted" Centaur, hopes to see remote-controlled passenger planes within five years. The Centaur can fly up to 27,500 feet and 2,300 miles with a 200-pound payload.

While FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker has reported to a congressional house committee that new technologies will help these remote-control crafts from crashing into humans and planes, the question remains whether the technology will be able to integrate with the established air traffic control system.

Once these important details are figured out, Langford envisions remote piloting eventually and inevitably being safer than a system that allows for human error. "I'm a huge believer that the unmanned airplane revolution will make aviation safer for everybody," he said.

Another unpiloted vehicle, the EVolo Volocopter, combines elements of a drone and helicopter to create an electric-powered aircraft with 18 rotors. The German inventors -- Stephan Wolf, Thomas Senkel and Alexander Zosel -- have won several eco-tech awards and convinced the German government to create a new flying class for the Volocopter. While the ultra-light craft has undergone numerous tests with human-size payloads, and has been remotely controlled with joysticks, no definitive timeline for commercial sales or service has been announced.

Which craft will reach the market first? Aurora's early collaboration with the FAA and ability to comply with many of today's aircraft standards appears to give it an advantage. Although the future may not quite look like "Bladerunner," some of it’s most pop-cult elements – foremost amongst which being those imagination-igniting flying cars and unmanned drones – are already starting to fill the sky.

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