EHang, the maker of the Ghost Drone just launched something at CES 2016 which might get a lot of folks excited. It’s basically a manned version of a traditional drone UAV called EHang 184 that provides means of personal transportation for a single passenger weighing not more than 100 kilograms or 220 pounds.
So first of all it’s not going to be the choice of NFL linemen because this maximum payload is for the passenger and personal belongings (luggage) combined. So a reasonable sized person would not be able to fly it having boots on :). The 184 was named for ‘one’ passenger, ‘eight’ propellers, and ‘four’ arms.
It’s a bit less ingenious than expected, I would personally like a less dull name for something that tends to be cool, for example the EHang Storm (copyright).
Other attempts to create a manned version of “drones” range from the Hoverbike which is at least a cool concept to the Flike which is a bit hard to take seriously, looks extremely dangerous to fly. None of these guys made it to the market just yet.
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But let’s look at the announced characteristics of EHang 184 to assess what’s great and not so great about it. If anything, these types of drones are at least guaranteed to give you the fpv drone flight you’re looking for if you’re into that sort of thing, this is real live FPV!
Ehang 184 Rotors and Configuration
The EHang 184 is very similar to a multicopter UAV with an X8 configuration. If you are not sure what the different configurations mean, check out our post. Obviously, a manned multicopter that would be trusted to carry a passenger can not be a quadcopter because if only one motor would malfunction, the vehicle would fall to the ground like a brick. Guaranteed.
Actually, the X8 configuration is very dear to me as that is what we use in film making (feel free to check out Aircamfilm on FB). Imagine two quadcopters placed on top of each other. The X8 configuration features 8 rotors placed on four arms so it combines the maneuverability and agility of a quadcopter with the redundancy of an octocopter.
So the X8 configuration is a good choice but only if configured right because I could not find any information as to how the ESC-s are placed and how many separate controllers are used, what type they are, etc. EHang does say that there are “multiple backups” in place, but what they mean is unclear. The key here is to have separate boards of redundancy where both controllers and ESCs are backed up by fallback systems.
In that case, theoretically even 4 of the 8 rotors can stop and the vehicle could be able to land safely. EHang’s CEO mentioned in an interview that even if 6 motors would fail on 3 of the arms, the AAV (Autonomous Aerial Vehicles) would be able to “spiral to the ground” safely. Well, that sounds kind of scary, doubt that it would not result in anything anyone can survive. The manufacturer says that “the 184 AAV is embedded with Ehangen fail safe system” which suggests that they designed their own solution. Hope they release more information on that.
At the same time, unlike winged aircraft multirotors do not have a gliding capability and that could be a concern. I guess EHang could mount an automatically deploying parachute like a BRS chute to let the vehicle ascend safely. But if there is no such system involved and the passenger has to bail due to a malfunction, the 8 rotors being right next to the doors is a bit of a concern. I am no aircraft designer, but it would seem reasonable to place the rotor blades above the craft for added security. Placing the rotors up high would also prevent bystanders from getting injured while takeoff and landing.
Prop guards have been used on multirotors for quite some time. For example the Hoverbike is designed to have them. Why the EHang 184’s are not equipped with ducted motors is also an interesting question. It could be my ignorance and I am sure the guys over at EHang have considered that but would love to find out what the reason is.
EHang 184’s Power Supply
The 184 will have a 23 minute flight time roughly allowing a 10 mile flight as announced at CES this week. Whether that, combined with a 2-4 hour charging time is sufficient for day-to-day use depends on the owner’s personal situation, but to me it seems a little too limited. Information is scarce at this time as to the type of battery the 184 will use, but the flight time suggests Lithium Polymer and that could also be a concern to be honest.
LiPo batteries are great, most UAVs use them, but they have to be handled correctly and tend to lose voltage suddenly in certain conditions such as cold weather. How you store and deplete them is also an issue, check out our guide on LiPo battery care.
Being zero emission is all great, but EHang should consider other power supply options like hybrid power (just an idea) in order to make the EHang 184 a reasonable alternative to small helicopters.
EHang 184 Control Mechanism
Now this is where it gets really scary. Reports from the EHang booth at CES say that the “pilot” or better say passenger in the cockpit will not have a chance to fly the aircraft or take over controls from the autonomous system. Well, not being able to fly the aircraft is a problem because it takes away most of the fun I would imagine owners could have owning this puppy.
A system similar to waypoint flying in UAVs that simply takes you to a desired location by just clicking on it on Google Maps sounds great as an option. But only as an option. Not the only way to fly the aircraft. I know not all possible future users are multirotor fanatics but I am quite sure that the first people to get one of these would be them. And not letting them fly the damn thing seems like a really bad idea.
According to the announcement, in case of emergency situations the EHang 184 will be piloted by personnel sitting in command centers somewhere and help you land safely at the “nearest possible location”. Now forget the fact that they will have to build these centers first which is mostly a matter of funds and the availability of qualified pilots that can take on the responsibility of saving someone’s life from the distance.
The US already has problems with drone pilot shortages but I guess whereas those guys take lives, these pilots would be saving lives from the distance. A better headline for recruitment for sure. But what happens if there is no connectivity between the aircraft and the command station? I personally would be a bit scared to let an autonomous system combined with some command center in the distance take responsibility for my safety.
Sure, Google has self driving cars but doing that in 3 dimension in the air is a totally different ballgame. While Intel and other corporate giants are working on obstacle avoiding UAVs, this technology is simply not in the state where they could be trusted to fly manned aircraft in urban locations.
EHang 184 Pricing
Accorcing to reports, the 184 will cost between $200.000 – $300.000. Now a small but proven helicopter such as the Robinson R44 Raven I costs $355.000 brand new. It has a 350 mile range and can transport 3 passengers at 4000 feet. Ok, it is more expensive to operate probably, but the 184 must be a hell of a lot cheaper to manufacture too. So the pricing seems to be a little extreme.
The Legal Circumstances
There are countries that are more restrictive and others are less prohibitive in the use of UAVs. EHang claims that they have done more than 100 hours of test flights near their headquarters in Guangzhou, some even with a human passenger inside. At the same time, the countries with more developed regulation that is based on experience mostly require Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) for unmanned flights. But hold on for a moment.
Is the EHang 184 a manned or an unmanned aircraft? There is passenger inside. But that passenger can not control the aircraft so that does not add any level of safety during flight. Amazon also faced challenges from regulators when trying to launch delivery drones which are autonomous and unmanned. So is the EHang 184 an autonomous vehicle that transports things and that “thing” happens to be a passenger? Or is it a manned aircraft because in that case you will need a pilot’s license to fly it. But why, if you are not able to take control and fly it? Can’t wait to see first reactions from regulators around the world
Questions remain on this front but I am sure that if EHang is serious about hoping for a wide scale adoption and “revolutionizing personal transportation”, they will face a lot of scrutiny. They plan to get them certified by the authorities in China first, than the US, New Zealand and Europe. I personally don’t know of any country in the world where the EHang 184 would be legal to fly today but that is not the problem in case of revolutionary technology.
Time to Market
According to reports, EHang plans to make AAVs or Autonomous Aerial Vehicles available later on this year. Well, this seems a bit too optimistic to my opinion as the prototype at CES was not demonstrated with any flight, even an unmanned one. Given the regulatory, pricing and other concerns, chances are that you will not be flying this thing very soon.
Our General Opinion on the EHang 184
EHang’s existing product on the market, the Ghost Drone is not a very memorable aircraft. The corresponding Facebook page has 46.000 fans and many users and testers reported that they are bit disillusioned with the Ghost. At the same time, the company raised $52 Million in a little over a year from prestigious investors. So they do have the financing and the aspiration to bring innovative products to the market but of course the industry would have more confidence in a company that has a proven track record of rock solid UAV products before launching something like this.
While lots of details remain unclear about the aircraft, we do know that it will have onboard WiFi and the reading light color will be “custom-made” according to the corporate website. Humor aside, if you watch the demonstration video, you will admire the honesty of showing how prototypes crashed and the determination the team has to make AAVs a reality.
The general concept is great and I personally would love to fly one of these things if they would only allow human control. I am sure that lots of things will change in the design concept, propulsion, power supply and other aspects of the aircraft. But in general, the determination of the design team and making this the legacy of some of their deceased team members (watch the video below) show a noble cause and let’s see if they will be able to revolutionize personal transport and succeed in making the first manned version of UAVs.
If you are interested in the marketing blurb released about the EHang 184, you can read the official press release here.