Low-altitude aircraft are one step closer to becoming a viable form of urban transportation, as Chinese company EHang just completed its first commercial passenger flight using a pilotless and autonomous drone.
The EH216-S model used 16 rotors and an electric battery to transport a human passenger over Guangzhou in its maiden commercial voyage on Dec. 28.
Though the vehicle is more helicopter-like than DeLorean and can’t be driven on the road (or travel through time), EHang designed the user interface to be simple enough for the general public to use like a standard car.
The EH216-S is quieter and greener than fuel-powered helicopters, but it seats just two people and can only travel 22 miles at speeds up to 81 mph. For reference, the top-selling civilian helicopter in 2022, the Airbus H125, can carry one pilot and six passengers at a cruising speed of 156 mph for a distance of 391 miles at maximum takeoff weight.
Nonetheless, the passenger drone still boasts plenty of advantages that could make it a popular mode of transportation in the near future.
“A journey that might take one hour on the ground due to road restrictions and traffic congestion could be completed in just 10 minutes in the air,” public relations manager Zoe Li told the South China Morning Post. “Moreover, the vertical take-off and landing means there’s no need for a runway, and its smaller size than helicopters results in significantly reduced noise.”
Its convenience and simplicity also allow the potential for the vehicle to be used for sightseeing, aerial logistics, emergency medical response, and firefighting.
The EH216-S is one of many electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft that could be available to the public in a few years. Doroni Aerospace plans on releasing its H1 flying car by the end of 2024, while Alef Aeronautics is projected to begin distributing its Model A flying car in 2025.
“[The demonstration] not only sets a significant benchmark for the airworthiness certification of innovative eVTOLs in China and globally, but it also marks a groundbreaking milestone in the commencement of commercial operations for urban air transportation,” Li said.
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