DMA TECH WATCH: Special Report – Is the Flying Car Finally Here?

By Phill Powell

For decades there’s been speculation about flying cars, but fairly little progress – until recently. Now it’s time to ask again, “Is the flying car finally here?”


The Ehang 184 was one of the hottest topics of discussion at the recent CES event in Las Vegas.

Well, yes and no. If we’re talking about an automobile that you can pilot as it flies through the air, no. But if we’re talking about a small, personal-sized vehicle that can fly at low altitudes, a Chinese manufacturer appears on track to produce exactly that.

In its current version, you don’t fly the Ehang 184 – it flies you. Using touchscreen-based maps, the passenger sets their starting point and where they want to land…and then just sits back and enjoys the ride. Like any other quadcopter drone, its blades start spinning furiously and the vehicle begins to rise.

Many, many questions remain about this product, most of them involving passenger safety, but we have to admit that Ehang’s launch video is a mind-blower…and a potential game-changer.

THE SPECS

A visit to the Ehang website reveals more information about the 184. Here are the stated specs:

EHANG_184_specifaction

Vehicle Weight: 440 lb.
Carrying Capacity: 1 passenger
Maximum Passenger Weight: 220 lb.
Additional Cargo: 1 16-inch computer bag
Cabin Height: 81 inches (6 feet 9 inches)
Cabin Width: 40 inches (3 feet 4 inches)
Number of Rotors: 8
Number of Motors: 8
Battery Charging Time: 2-4 hours
Hover Duration: 23 minutes
Average Speed: 62 mph
Top Altitude: 1,640 feet

SPEC REVIEW

Remember those “many, many questions” that remain about the Ehang 184? After reviewing the specs, here are some of the most pressing areas of interest:

Vehicle Size Anyone who’s ever flown in a small private airplane can recall the occasional panicky moment when they realized what a tiny flying box they were riding in, and how high up in the air they were. Anyone riding in an Ehang 184 is likely to feel that sensation amplified. We’re talking about a cabin that’s just over three feet wide. While that may feel snug and cozy on the ground, it could feel terrifyingly small and unprotected when you’re hovering more than a thousand feet in the air.

Travel Distance At present, the Ehang 184 seems practical only for small hops. With a stated average speed of 62 mph and a flying time of 23 minutes, trips would have to be approximately 24 miles in length or less. Presumably, you would need to land and recharge the craft’s battery system before venturing off again.

Altitude Its makers call the Ehang 184 a “low-altitude” vehicle and that’s true. With a top altitude approaching 1,640 feet, the craft could not fly over the eight tallest buildings in the world. And while at first glance, its low-altitude environment would seem to free it from interfering with commercial and private air traffic, which zooms by at much loftier heights, that’s not altogether so. Planes do take off and land (sometimes unexpectedly, during emergencies) within the same altitude space that will be used by the Ehang 184.

Possible Interference A big problem for 747s and Cessnas is interference from flocks of birds, who also fly at low altitudes. This is an aircraft with even less protection. Another possible interference problem: drones of all types, whizzing around on various improvised flight plans. How sturdy would the Ehang be after a collision with another drone?

Flight Control Now we arrive at the biggest potential problem: Yes, the technology behind autonomous flight is possible, but how would it work on a grand scale? Ehang has spoken of establishing flight control centers, but they would need to be fairly numerous or extensive in order to maintain order in low-altitude airspaces around the world.

drone_flight
Who knows? Before too long, you could be zooming around in your own passenger drone!

ENGINEERING CAN TAKE YOU TO NEW HEIGHTS

Although it’s pretty clear that the technology behind the Ehang 184 is possible, it may be years before it’s practical. And safe. The company’s next huge hurdle will be the Federal Aviation Administration, which will be plenty interested in how all of this passenger-drone technology is supposed to work.

But the Ehang 184 clearly shows how science and engineering are constantly advancing, and coming up with new ways to revolutionize the way we live.

There are amazing futures to be had in many different types of science and technology careers – especially for young people who begin early. Start this summer, with a week or two spent discovering STEM subjects through our engineering tech camps.

DMA Winter Savings are now in effect. Register now…before classes sell out!