Ever since “The Jetsons” arrived on television in the 1960s, showing a family of the future gliding around in a flying car, people have imagined when that technology could become available for commercial use.
A Chinese company says that reality is coming soon.
Derrick Xiong, co-founder Chinese drone-maker Ehang, discussed his company’s autonomous passenger drones at a South by Southwest session while also talking about the technology that is making commercialization of the project a closer reality.
“We’re happy at where we’ve arrived,” Xiong said. “We firmly believe what we are doing is the future, and the future is coming very soon.”
Ehang — a division of Beijing Yi-Hang Creation Science & Technology Co. — is one of several companies working on flying vehicles. Boeing and Uber are also investing in the technology, though Ehang has made some of the greatest strides in the industry. Ehang recently released new footage showing tests of its passenger drones.
Xiong helped establish Ehang about four years ago. By 2016, the company announced its first passenger drone prototype.
The Ehang 184 model is a single-passenger drone with four electric-powered propellers that has been tested more than 1,000 times during various weather conditions. There is also a prototype with eight propellers, and one that carries two passengers.
The Ehang drone, Xiong said, has been able to fly for about 25 minutes on a single charge and reaches 500 meters while in cruising altitude. It requires an hour to be charged.
The drone is flown by a guided path preset from a control device that signals specific launch and landing spots. Ehang is working on also giving the drone manual control.
Xiong said the technology’s future use can be imagined like a drone show — hundreds of drones that have been synced to form certain paths that create a visualization in the sky. Drone shows have been used, for example, at the 2017 Super Bowl halftime show, as well as at this year’s Winter Olympics opening ceremony.
“Imagine every flying car is a drone,” Xiong said, with the possibility of synchronized traffic systems for passenger drones in the future.
But the technology, if commercialized, would likely begin in the tourism industry, Xiong said. And it would would probably begin in non-U.S. markets that have looser regulations.
Ehang is planning to conduct a multiple-city tour this summer to attract partners that can help bring the product to market. Xiong said the company will announce tour sites and dates soon.
The company is also considering the safety features that would need to be in place to bring about a Jetsons-like future.
Xiong said those should consist of a remote command center, a concept his company has already used as a safeguard in case anything were to go wrong with the test flights it has conducted.
The greatest threat for flying cars to be commercialized is not in the tech or the regulation of it, Xiong said.
It is in people’s doubt and fear to adopt it.
“The biggest challenge will be people’s mentality,” Xiong said.