A Chinese company claimed a world first on Wednesday by unveiling a drone capable of carrying a human passenger.
Guangzhou-based Ehang Inc pulled the cloth off the Ehang 184 at the Las Vegas convention center during the CES gadget show.
In a company video showing the 184 flying, it looks like a small helicopter but with four propellers spinning parallel to the ground in a similar configuration to other drones.
The electric-powered drone can be fully charged in two hours, carry up to 100kg (220lb) and fly for 23 minutes at sea level, according to Ehang. The cabin fits one person and a small backpack and is fitted with air conditioning and a reading light. It is designed to fit, with propellers folded, in a single parking spot.
After setting a flight plan, passengers needed only to give two commands – “take off” and “land” – done with a single click on a tablet, the company said.
The drone is designed to fly 300 metres to 500 metres (1,000 to 1,650 feet) off the ground with a maximum altitude of 3.5km (11,500 feet) and top speed of 63 mph (100km/h).
US authorities are starting to lay out guidelines for drone use, and a human-passenger drone seems certain to face strict scrutiny.
Michael Huerta, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, was at CES but could not immediately be reached for comment.
Shang Hsiao, Ehang’s co-founder and chief financial officer, said his company hoped to sell the device for $200,000-$300,000 this year but acknowledged it occupied a legal grey area. “The whole world never had something like this before,” he said.
A passenger would have no controls as a backup, he said. The company was planning a remote control centre that would take over the vehicle in the event of a problem and ensure it landed safely.
Derrick Xiong, the chief marketing officer, said the vehicle had been flown more than 100 times at low altitudes in a forested area in Guangzhou, including several times with a person aboard.
One feature that made the quadcopter safer than a helicopter was its numerous propellers, Xiong said. Even if three of the four arms had their six propellers disabled, the final arm’s working propellers could ensure a rough landing by spiralling toward the ground.
The company, which also makes smaller drones, said in August that it had raised $42m in capital from various investors including GP Capital, GGV Capital, ZhenFund and others, after raising $10 m the previous year.