Friday, January 8, 2016

The Gutsiest Product of CES 2016

There's a lot of fun stuff going on CES; things like rollable LED TV screens, automatic bartenders, 3D candy printers, and a mood dress, but when it comes to gutsy innovation, I think the award has to go the Ehang 184 drone.  See, this isn't your average golden-age-of-narcissism-type drone that follows you and documents how awesome you are, this drone carries you and delivers your actual awesomeness somewhere else.  Specifically, somewhere else fairly close; it's rated to carry a person up to 264 pounds for up to 23 minutes.  
Ehang says its 142-horsepower electric motor is good for an average cruising speed of 62 mph. The Ehang 184 has a span of 18 feet when fully unfolded, weighs 440 lbs, and can carry a passenger weighing up to 264 pounds. Its maximum flying altitude is 11,480 feet, and the AAV can fly for as long as 23 minutes at sea level.

And—get this—the Ehang 184 can be controlled entirely through a mobile app. In fact, Ehang says passengers only have to execute two commands: “take off” and “land.” Once you’ve set your course, the Ehang 184 will take off vertically, and use real-time sensor data (and presumably GPS) to keep you on course.
Based on those numbers quoted in the first paragraph, I'd say its practical range would be on the order of 15 miles.  While it's tempting to say 23 miles is over a third of an hour, and with a speed of 62 mph, a third of an hour at 62 is over 20 miles each way, that leaves no contingency for needing extra power for anything, like accelerating to 62 for example.  Perhaps a lighter person could stretch that out farther.

The company itself, Ehang, is based in Guangzhou, China, and they see it the way the original hype on the Segway came across; "it's going to change everything!"  They envision it as changing commuting and transportation around the world.  Well maybe, in dense cities where commutes may be under that 15 mile limit.  It's not available yet, and this is where the troubles start.  Its service altitude means it can fly in controlled air space, and you really don't want to spend a lot of time at its 11,480 foot ceiling if you don't have oxygen available.  Legally, this puts it in danger of needing to be certified like any other small, privately owned aircraft.  Aside from having four struts carrying props, making it look more like a toy drone, how is it different from a small helicopter?  The FAA recognizes a class of experimental aircraft called ultralight, but the requirements say that the maximum empty weight has to be under 254 lbs; a far cry from that 440 lbs. cited above.  

That makes it sound like any other private aircraft to me, and I don't know that it meets the other requirements for a helicopter.  I see what looks to be a headlight, and the video at that PCWorld link seems to show the other required lights small aircraft are required to have.  What about a radio for communicating with the ground or other aircraft?  Aircraft that fly in controlled air space need to be equipped with a transponder, and other equipment.  None of that gets mentioned.  As with anything else in the extremely regulated world of aviation, the questions have little to do with the actual airframe and almost entirely come down to legal matters.  The company issued a statement saying:
“Because the 184 AAV represents an entirely new category of technology, there are regulations and agencies that are still catching up. We are in uncharted waters, and are working closely with government agencies across the planet to develop and regulate the future of transportation.” 
Price is estimated at around a quarter of a million dollars; 200 to $300,000, potentially available later in the year.  I don't think I'll hold my breath on this one, but it's as close to the Jetsons' flying cars that I see out there.  


  1. Now THIS is the type of drone that could REALLY cause terminal damage to a passenger airplane when someone decides to operate it near an airport. And seriously injure or kill someone on the ground when the Bozo On Board goes stupid. NOT the things that our fine Betters are now regulating.

    But surely you jest when you say this is "The Gutsiest Product of CES 2016". I'm reasonably confident this beats that hands down:
    and will sell far better as well.

    Original link from Drudge. He's getting a bit edgy these days...

    1. You know, I had intended to put a joke in there that the gutsiest part would be actually flying in a drone built in China with no user controls, but somehow managed to forget it.

      Like they say, memory is the second thing to go. I don't recall the first.

  2. Might be *somewhat* useful on a ranch or in (literally) "flyover" country....

  3. According to ehang website, max altitude is 500 meters (1640 ft).

    1. Thanks. I didn't see that. I saw that 11,000-ish foot altitude number in a couple of places, so I went with it.

  4. 142HP x 745 W/HP = 105790W

    That's over 2000 amperes at 48V battery voltage. For 23 minutes?

    How much does the battery weigh? A quarter-ton?

  5. I think the horsepower rating must be a peak rating, not a steady state 142 HP.

    Check out the illustration of the drone on this page. It says 14.4 kWH at the lower right, but 106 kW on the left. Since 14.4 kWH divided by 106 kW is 0.136 hour, and they're claiming 0.383 hour flight time at sea level, it must only hit that HP for a short time.

    The specs don't quite seem to agree.

    As for how much battery there is, could this be one of those instances where a higher voltage cell helps?

    1. I think we both agree that some "creative spec-manship"is going on here.

      You are correct that higher battery voltages can improve overall energy usage efficiency - mainly by reducing I-squared-R losses in delivery cables and motor windings, but it's not a huge boost.

      BUT - the battery will still be about the same size & weight.

      Has there been an actual flight demo (with passenger/pilot)?

      I suspect the thing is not really viable as a vehicle - other than for novelty value.