The world of personal travel has been changed by the likes of Uber and Lyft, which have made ridesharing the norm in cities all around the world. But ridesharing may be taking to the skies if a Chinese start-up has its way.
Ehang has been given clearance to test its passenger drone in Nevada, opening an entirely new form of travel for consumers. Could we soon be taking drones to and from work on a regular basis?
What is the Ehang 184?
Ehang 184 is a personal drone that can fly a 220-pound person at 62 miles per hour for 23 minutes. It's all-electric and has eight rotors that allow for redundancy in case of a failure. The 14.4 kWh battery can be charged in two to four hours as currently designed.
Ehang already has experience making hobby drones with Ghostdrone 2.0 on the market, but this takes the flying experience to another level. The company will be testing automated flying in Nevada with an app that allows for point-by-point flying instructions to be given to the drone. There's no need for a pilot or any flying skills, which could make this a revolutionary flying experience.
Flying drones are on the way
While Ehang has been making headlines, Bloomberg recently uncovered that it's far from the only company looking into the space. Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) founder Larry Page has been funding two "flying car" companies in Silicon Valley, Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk. Their vehicles have been built in secret, but they've reportedly been conducting test flights in central California.
There are another dozen or so companies designing, building, and testing a variety of flying cars or autonomous personal drones around the world. Some are built for long-range travel, while others offer quick ways to get from point A to point B. What these efforts show is that innovation is coming to the aircraft industry, and it may be just as impactful as Uber and Lyft's disruption has been in automobiles.
What could the passenger drone future look like?
Given the rigorous tests aircraft have to go through to meet federal safety standards, we're probably a decade away from joyriding in drones. But with tests now taking place in the U.S., it's worth thinking about who may play a role in the industry. Obviously, start-ups like Ehang, Zee.Aero, and Kitty Hawk could be influential players, but the industry is currently dominated by larger companies due to the scale necessary to compete in air travel.
With aircraft companies like Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) taking the long view of their business and diving heavily into drones in the past few years, it's interesting to speculate where they may be headed next. For example, Boeing has been issued a patent for a flying drone that becomes a submarine, so it's pushing the envelope in the drone space. Lockheed Martin is a leader in drones for military and early commercial applications. Plus, its Sikorsky helicopter unit has tested unmanned flights this year.
From a technology side, Alphabet seems like a natural partner for passenger drone companies. It's already developing self-driving car technology and has a dominant position in mapping, so it could fold into this business nicely. In many ways, it could be easier to develop tech for a flying passenger drone than for a car, which has to detect obstacles all over the road. In the air, risk of hitting something falls dramatically.
We still may be years from calling a drone to bring us home during rush hour or out to the lakes for a weekend, but that may not be as far away as it currently seems. If Ehang's tests in Nevada go well, personal drone travel could become a reality. And it could change how we think about transportation in the next century.