The idea of personalized air travel aboard autonomous flying taxis sounds like a pretty fanciful transport concept, but it started to get some serious traction when Ehang's 184 drone landed at CES earlier this year. Many questions remain over how the human-carrying aircraft would function in the real world, but at least some of these may soon be answered with the company winning governmental approval to test the vehicle in Nevada airspace.
The single-seater electric drone is designed to offer an aerial transport option for people traveling short-to-medium distances. The idea is that passengers hop in, enter their destination on a 12-inch touchscreen and hit the take-off button. The autonomous flight systems handle the rest, including avoiding obstacles, communicating with air traffic control systems and navigating the flight path.
This all sounds pretty exciting, but the trouble is the drone on show at CES was just a prototype and, one short clip of it hovering aside, Ehang has never demonstrated its purported capabilities. It has, however, done enough to impress biotech firm Lung Biotechnology, which has teamed up with the Chinese drone-maker to adapt the vehicle for future organ deliveries. And now the US state of Nevada is looking to get onboard as well.
Both the Governor's Office of Economic Development (GOED) and the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS) have signed an agreement with Ehang to begin testing the aircraft. The program will take place at Nevada's FAA-approved test site, one of six such drone-testing locations across the US. There's no mention of whether this testing will cover the vehicle's capacity to carry humans, but the stated intention is to gain the Ehang 184 a Certificate of Airworthiness, an FAA document that gives it authority to fly.
"The State of Nevada, through NIAS, will help guide EHang through the FAA regulatory process with the ultimate goal of achieving safe flight," says Tom Wilczek, GOED's Aerospace and Defense Industry Specialist. "EHang's selection of Nevada to test its people-carrying drone marks a thrilling addition to the innovative companies testing throughout our state to advance the commercial drone industry. I personally look forward to the day when drone taxis are part of Nevada's transportation system."
The US government is still in the process of drawing up new regulations for commercial drone flight, so even if the testing is a runaway success it's going to be a while before you can delete the Uber app on your phone and hail an Ehang 184 instead. But still, there was a healthy air of scepticism around the transport concept when it emerged, and though winning approval to test it out doesn't put that to bed entirely, it is a step in a pretty promising direction.