Ehang, a Chinese company that builds autonomous drones big enough to carry human passengers, completed its first public test of the Ehang 216 yesterday in Yantai, China. The 216 is a two-seater eVTOL, or electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft that can cruise at speeds of 62 miles per hour with a flight time of 21 minutes on a charge.
Don't f*ck it up — Ehang ditched the crowded market for regular drones in favor of the nascent eVTOL industry, with the ultimate goal of launching a commercial taxi service. It already has approval to do so in Guangzhou, China, but the company has stressed caution in its roll-out of any such service; even one accident risks severely damaging public trust. We've already seen that happen in the self-driving car space.
Ehang says it has already conducted more than 2,000 test flights of the 216, including in windy conditions, but yesterday's test was the first time flying outside of a controlled environment. It also tested the vehicle in the U.S. back in January as it aims to receive regulatory approval here as well. Stateside, the company would be competing against other eVTOL players including Archer and even Uber, which has been developing an eVTOL in partnership with Hyundai. Ehang seems to have a bit more experience with aviation than those companies, even if not a lot.
Why they look so weird — The dream of companies like Ehang and Uber is to reduce congestion and commute times by taking to the skies. The reason the vehicles need these propellor designs is that if eVTOLs are going to be used for commuting in urban environments, you can't expect to have large runways. The aircraft need to be able to take off straight into the air from helipads. Helicopters already exist, of course, but eVTOLs are said to be safer because the propellers function as redundancies, meaning if one fails the others can still bring the aircraft down safely.
New York City famously had helicopter commuting services until a fatal crash in the 70s brought their demise. With so many companies developing eVTOLs, though, it seems like a question of when, not if, this future will become a reality.