Quiz question. What do Airbus, Uber, and Google have in common? The answer is flying cars, with the Airbus Group the latest to announce plans to develop and build these futuristic vehicles.
A quick look at Airbus’ plans reveal a car more like the multicopter drone vehicles being worked on by the likes of China’s EHang – previously featured in the pages of P1. Like EHang too, Airbus says its cars – dubbed Project Vahana – will be electric powered and also able to fly themselves.
Airbus subsidiary A3 says it will have a working prototype by the end of 2017 with a view to having a mass market product within 10 years.
“Many of the technologies needed, such as batteries, motors, and avionics are most of the way there,” said A3 CEO Rodin Lyasoff.
“In as little as ten years, we could have products on the market that revolutionise urban travel for millions of people.”
The thing is, Airbus is behind the curve, as the latest update on the EHang 184 Autonomous Aerial Vehicle shows.
EHang is headquartered in Guangzhou, China, with branches in California, Düsseldorf, Beijing and Shanghai. As well as pioneering work with drones like the Ghostdrone 2.0, the EHang 184 claims to be “the world’s first safe, smart and eco-friendly autonomous aerial vehicle to provide short-to-medium distance communication and transportation solutions”.
With about 300 employees led by a senior management team from 21Vianet Group, Microsoft, Lenovo and Foxconn, EHang has become a frontrunner in the competitive drone industry autonomous vehicles.
Debuted at the CES consumer electronics show in early 2016, it’s incredible to see the strides that have been made with the EHang 184.
“What we have been aiming at for the EHang 184 is not only making an unprecedented innovative exploration as a technology startup, but also bringing everyone in the world closer to the much-anticipated dream of autonomous aerial flight through our initiative and endeavours,” they say.
The EHang 184 concept not only includes a safe, smart, eco-friendly AAV, but also a comprehensive system and service solutions to ensure flight safety.
It may look like an oversized drone with a passenger compartment, and in many ways it is, but it is also flying right now and has some impressive control centre development going on behind the scenes.
The EHang engineer team has done a series of flight tests – from basic hovering to point-to-point flight tests, all monitored, tracked and controlled remotely from the control centre. It’s impressive stuff, and the folks at EHang expect to be conducting autonomous flights “in the near future”.
Last year the company focussed on setting up a special flight command centre to accurately monitor a variety of flight data and dispatch air traffic. In this newly completed flight command centre, the ground crew can receive and analyse a variety of real-time data transmitted by each EHang 184, including the control data, flight data, videos and more – all designed to enable a safe journey from A to B.
It’s interesting to see EHang focussing efforts on the command and control centre rather than simply working on the vehicle itself. In doing so, they are not only proving the principles of the EHang but also the real-world applications and possibilities.
“Through the command centre, our ground staff will be real-time monitoring every aircraft data and each take-off and landing all-weather, and always stand by to connect with passengers’ calls at any time,” they say. “This is a long-term and vital project with huge investment in hardware and software construction at the early stage and the day-to-day operation cost in the future.
“We acknowledged the fact that EHang 184 is a project which investment and operation costs will be far greater than its proceeds today and in the future for a period of time before it achieves a certain scale of commercialisation. Even so, we believe in what we do, and took a year to set up the command centre and run into trial operation, because it is an indispensable and important part of the EHang 184 system in the future.”
That’s not to say that the engineers have not been kept busy improving and refining the EHang. They have designed and upgraded three versions of the propeller. The first-generation mainly met the requirements of the flight tests, while the second generation propeller had its performance further improved. The third-generation propeller design not only improved the aerodynamic efficiency by 10-15%, but also reduced noise.
The motors have also been upgraded to the third generation, as have the electronic speed controllers (ESC). The flight controller system is the brains of the aircraft. There was no solution on the market so EHang developed their own specifically for the 184, which could ensure the control and flight stability of a multi-rotor aircraft with huge inertia and load. Then of course there is the battery, which again has been upgraded and refined with their own Battery Management System.
You only have to look at the incredible strides made by electric car companies like Tesla to appreciate how far the technology has moved forwards in recent years. Battery technology is crucial to this. And the same principles behind driverless cars are helping to drive the acceptance and safety of driverless air vehicles too. But will it really be just a decade away, as Airbus, would have us believe, that we will be summoning an air taxi by Uber? You wouldn’t bet against it.
“It has always been the dream and mission of EHang to create a truly safe, smart and eco-friendly autonomous aerial vehicle. Although we recognise that there will numerous challenges to realize this dream, we will persevere,” say EHang.
“We believe the autonomous aerial transportation ecosystem will only be successful with the participations of policy makers, regulators, entrepreneurial vehicle designer and manufacturers, application service providers and many other partners and stakeholders from across the globe, who will be keen to interact with one another to shape the ecosystem together.”