One of the highlights at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas was a single-seat automated quadcopter named EHang 184 by Chinese drone maker EHang. The drone can carry passengers like a helicopter with a self-controlled flight system and no pilot required.
The idea of skipping all the traffic on the ground and being able to fly without a pilot’s license thrilled the public. The Wall Street Journal titled the EHang video “The EHang 184: Taking the Drone up a Notch”.
But soon it received a blast of criticism from its home country. Drone makers and enthusiasts began to attack the feasibility and safety of the quadcopter. A tech columnist even said the EHang 184 signifies “bold and unscrupulous contempt of consumers’ intelligence”.
Chinese tech media site iFanr quoted a drone maker’s criticism that EHang “used montage editing” to give the illusion that a passenger was sitting in the quadcopter during the test flight in the video. In EHang’s promotional video, only shots of someone getting into the cockpit and the quadcopter taking off are presented. It’s not clearly shown whether anybody is really sitting in the quadcopter, and the height and time of the test flight remain unknown.
More criticism focused on the design and safety of the product. Jin Hong, a columnist, wrote on Chinese tech blog Leifeng that the EHang 184 “is not equipped for a forced landing and if it’s not high enough, not even a parachute will help”.
An amateur pilot also expressed another safety concern to iFanr after checking out the quadcopter at CES: the autonomous aerial vehicle didn’t appear to have any manual emergency controls, which posed an enormous threat to passengers in the case of any possible electronic malfunctions.
The missing manual control components lead to another problem: this new type of aerial vehicle is very unlikely to meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s criteria for airworthiness.
According to the FAA, “each automatic pilot system must be designed so that the automatic pilot can be sufficiently overpowered by one pilot to allow control of the rotorcraft and be readily and positively disengaged by each pilot to prevent it from interfering with control of the rotorcraft.” EHang 184, at the moment, doesn’t seem to meet this criterion. Considering the stricter regulatory climate in China, it doesn’t seem likely that the product will comply with regulations here, either.
So far, the drone maker has not responded to these questions raised by the public. Its CMO and co-founder Xiong Yifang even deleted his comments on a user’s post in WeChat Moments, choosing to stay mum on the issue.
“I truly believe that EHang will make a global impact across dozens of industries beyond personal travel. The 184 is evocative of a future we’ve always dreamed of and is primed to alter the very fundamentals of the way we get around,” EHang’s CEO Hu Huazhi said to The Verge in an earlier report.
But before it can revolutionize personal travel, it has to show convincing proof to settle the debate at home.
(Top photo from PR Newswire)