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Ehang and Airbus are pushing ahead with plans for autonomous electric aircraft they say will solve the problem of urban congestion. Is the world ready for this?

Autonomous Vehicles

Up, Up, & Away In A Flying Drone From Ehang Or Airbus

Ehang and Airbus are pushing ahead with plans for autonomous electric aircraft they say will solve the problem of urban congestion. Is the world ready for this?

“Mobility” is the buzzword of today. Everyone is hot for finding new ways to avoid the congestion trap that makes modern cities a nightmare. In the age of the horse and carriage, the average speed in central London was 3.5 miles per hour — about as fast as most people can walk comfortably. 150 years later, the average speed in central London is still 3.5 miles per hour. Cities are drowning in traffic as cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians vie for the same space at the same time. Is there no way to cut the Gordian Knot and free us from wasting half our lives crawling through traffic?

Many people have seized on the idea of flying cars and/or drones — airships that would whisk us from Point A to Point B quickly and cheaply. Don’t waste time in traffic, fly over it. Be happy. Life is good. Our own Nicholas Zart has covered this topic extensively here at CleanTechnica.  “The glass is half empty” types — like myself — question whether taking all those people off the street and putting them into the skies will solve our urban congestion problem. Won’t we just wind up with congested skies instead of congested streets? But I digress.

Ehang Drone Completes Testing Protocol

Ehang 184 electric drone

Ehang, the Chinese company that brought its model 184 electric autonomous quadcopter to the Consumer Electronics Show in 2016, says it has successfully completed an exhaustive testing protocol. Over the past few months, the 184 has undergone over a thousand test flights, according to The Verge. It has completed a 300 meter vertical climb, transported a weight of 500 pounds, flown a 9.3 mile long test flight autonomously, and reached a top speed of 130 kph.

The 184 has also performed flawlessly in a variety of different weather conditions, including high temperatures, heavy fog, flying at night, and gale force winds. “What we’re doing isn’t an extreme sport, so the safety of each passenger always comes first,” said Ehang founder and CEO Huazhi Hu. “Now that we’ve successfully tested the Ehang 184, I’m really excited to see what the future holds for us in terms of air mobility.”

The Ehang 184 can carry a single passenger 10 miles — equivalent to a 23 minute flight. It takes off, flies, and lands autonomously. All the passenger needs to do is enjoy the view. A human pilot is available to take over control of the aircraft remotely if necessary. The company is working on a prototype with a carrying capacity of more than 600 pounds that will carry two passengers. It has permission from the FAA to test its autonomous flying vehicles in designated areas in Nevada.

Airbus Pushing VTOL Technology

Airbus VTOL electric airplane

Perhaps you think Ehang is a small time player that may or may not be able to transition to commercial viability, but Airbus certainly has the resources to see its electric air taxi plans through. It has created a dedicated teamed called Vehana to do the research and development needed to get into the game. Its first prototype — named Alpha One — has just had its Kitty Hawk moment. It only flew for 53 seconds while reaching a height of 16 feet but Wilbur and Orville started small, too, and look what happened to air travel after that! Like the Ehang 184, the Airbus Alpha One is completely autonomous.

The Airbus creation is a VTOL aircraft, which means it has wings to help it achieve stable flight once in the air. The wings and the attached electric motors pivot into a vertical position for takeoff and landing. Airbus envisions such craft being part of an autonomous shuttle service similar to the land based system Waymo is rolling out in Phoenix and other US cities this year.

Is The World Ready For This?

In prior stories about electric drones and aircraft, some CleanTechnica readers have questioned whether the noise generated by all those propellers beating the air will prove unpopular with the plebeians down on the ground. Anyone who has spent any time near an Army or Air Force base where helicopters are prevalent will relate to that concern. And as I mentioned above, crowded streets may be a drag but crowded skies could be downright frightening. Call me a Luddite, but I am firmly in the “We’ll see” category when it comes to airborne mobility solutions.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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