The world’s first drone taxi, also called the “passenger drone”, has been cleared for testing in Nevada this year. Developed by the Chinese manufacturer Ehang, it is called the Ehang 184. This means that the autonomous vehicle is designed to carry 1 passenger, and is equipped with 8 rotors and 4 hands. Ehang is the manufacturer of the Ghostdrone and Falcon series of high performance commercial drones.
The Ehang 184 was unveiled last January during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Chinese company is partnering with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (Goed) and the Nevada Institute for Autonomous systems (NIAS) for the testing of the drone and subsequently, for securing FAA approval.
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The drone taxi will join other advanced transport solutions that are being tested in the state for possible commercial application. Nevada is the first state that legalized the use of autonomous vehicles or driverless cars guided by technologies such as GPS sensing for navigation and sensors for avoiding collisions. Though prototypes like the Google autonomous car design has been extensively tested and has logged thousands of hours in road trips, these are still not commercially available.
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The features of Ehang 184 that were disclosed when it was unveiled at the CES are its X8 configuration and the Ehangen fail safe system that guarantees passenger safety. In the X8 configuration, the 8 rotors are distributed in the 4 arms to provide a fallback system in case of rotor malfunction. Ehang executives claim that even with 6 malfunctioning rotors, the Ehangen fail safe system will make the Ehang 184 spiral safely to the ground.
The fail safe features of the drone taxi remain proven during its test flights. Meanwhile, drone enthusiasts are already raising the issue of the passenger having no control over the flight. The control mechanism of the Ehang 184 remains on the ground, and the passenger in the drone’s cockpit has no means of control over the autonomous flight. This means plotting your flight on the ground control booth, hopping into the drone, and disembarking at your destination. For drone enthusiasts, this means having a fist person view (FPV) of the flight minus the excitement of piloting the craft.
The Ehang 184 drone taxi has a 100 kg (220 lbs.) payload and a maximum 23-minute flight time. Its flight altitude is up to 3.5 km (11,500 feet) and the maximum speed is about 100 kph (63 mph). This gives a flight radius of about 33 kilometers.
Airbus, the giant aeronautics manufacturer, is close behind Ehang in its venture to develop and launch a flying taxi service. Called the Vahana flying vehicle for cargo transport and individual passengers, its prototype is expected to be completed within the next 12 months. While it is still unclear whether the Vahana will be a single-seater aircraft or a drone, Airbus envisions this project as a transport solution in megacities where traffic congestion is a major problem.
Based on the level of interest that the Ehang 184 and the Vahana projects have attracted, the drone taxi can be a transport solution when its technology has satisfied all the requirements of FAA regulations.