When Chinese drone manufacturer EHang showed off its EHang 184 human-carrying drone at CES 2016, it boasted that the first production models would roll off the assembly line by December 2016. But that turned out to be too ambitious, and the drone manufacturer acknowledged in a recent statement that building an autonomous flying car isn’t as easy as it sounds – which isn’t that surprising.
“Admittedly, the grandness and arduousness of this project is not as a simple science fiction future as people imagined,” the statement said said. So far EHang hasn’t made any new predictions about production or FAA certification, but the company says the passenger drone is still a work in progress.
However, now there are videos of EHang’s ambitious autonomous flying car actually … flying.
Work to be done
So, the passenger drone didn’t actually take off during its CES 2016 debut because it didn’t have an FAA exemption allowing the flight. At the time, the company claimed the aircraft had made some successful test flights in China, but it only recently released images and video of the EHang 184 in the air.
Flights began with simple hover tests to work out flight stability and attitude control. Next, the company moved on to some point-to-point flights, presumably under the command of a pilot on the ground, although EHang hasn’t confirmed that part.
“In the near future, we can expect autonomous flight under 4G network with load, which is ongoing now,” EHang said in its recent statement, without answering the big question of when the near future could be.
And the drone that graced the stage at CES last year looks a little different than the one in the newly-released video. Most of the updated drones’ power and control components are now in at least their third generations. The new propellers, for instance, feature much broader blades than the original version, which EHang says makes the drone more aerodynamically efficient and provides a quieter ride.
EHang’s engineers also spent much of 2016 working on the algorithms that run the passenger drone’s flight control system. The system is fully redundant, with two control systems and two sets of sensors. Based on test data, EHang built a virtual simulated version of the EHang 184, which was plugged into the flight control system to put the drone’s electronic brain through its paces. The company says it’s working on a new version of the flight control system that will upgrade the system’s sensors and improve its anti-jamming capability, as well as provide more accurate, reliable control.
Flight command and control center
Passengers of EHang 184 will use a tablet console to select their destinations or stop the aircraft in an emergency. The company says that if something goes wrong, passengers can use the tablet to call a flight command and control center on the ground for help. Staff at the center will monitor control and flight data, as well as interior and exterior video, from EHang 184s in the air.
The first command and control center is based in China and is running what the company calls “trial operations,” monitoring data from simulated test flights. In December 2016, EHang got permission from Chinese authorities for the center to remotely control a small drone, which flew through a series of waypoints while the center monitored its status.
EHang says it took about a year to build and set-up the facility. The company hasn’t said how much it cost to build, but it did say in a statement, “We acknowledged the fact that EHang 184 is a project which investment and operation costs will be far greater than its proceeds today and in the future for a period of time before it achieves a certain scale of commercialization.”
Exactly when, or even if, you’ll be able to hop into an EHang 184 and fly from point A to B is still up in the air. All we can do is wait.
Featured image: EHang
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