The video above tells a story about technology in an unusually human way. It recounts the origins of the Ehang 184, touted as the first autonomous aerial vehicle. In line with contemporary techspeak, its designers describe it as “disruptive and revolutionary,” but as the video suggests, there’s something more emotional going on with it, too.
According to Ehang CEO Huazhi Hu, the development of this aircraft is personal. In 2011, the co-founder of Ehang, Ji Chen, died in an aircraft accident, followed shortly by the death of Huazhi’s helicopter-flying instructor in another crash. Shortly thereafter, Huazhi stopped work on the company’s current projects to devote himself to developing what he calls an “absolutely safe” aircraft, the Ehang 184.
After a few years of quiet development, the company released the Ghostdrone in 2014, a user-friendly, camera-ready quadcopter that could be controlled by a phone app. Behind the scenes, work progressed on Huazhi’s dream project.
The Ehang 184 is all-electric with eight propellers mounted on four arms. Redundancy has been built into its power system and those extra propellers for safety. The craft is almost 5 feet tall, weighs 440 pounds, and can carry 220 pounds. It's designed to fly autonomously—all the user has to do, according to Ehang’s Derrick Xiong, is enter the desired coordinates in the craft’s control software, press a couple of onscreen buttons, sit back, and fly. No training required. For now, the vehicle flies at about 60 mph and can travel about 10 miles.
One of the thorniest problems with autonomous aircrafts is keeping them from crashing into unexpected objects on their flight paths. While autonomous drones typically include sensors to help them avoid collisions, the Ehang 184 is designed instead to land if it senses damage to any of its parts.
There’s no official launch date set yet, but the company plans to start selling the Ehang 184 in China in a few months, with the U.S. following close behind. The Ehang 184 is expected to cost between $200,000 and $300,000, in the same neighborhood as other nonautonomous flying cars being developed, such as the Terrafugia TF-X and Aeromobil.