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Editorial : Passenger Carrying Drones

After the CES, there has been much talk about the eHang 184 passenger carrying drone. According to the company it has completed some early flight tests in China, however much of the promotional footage at CES was computer generated, promoting the idea of the future, rather than the reality of the present. What is the future of passenger carrying drones ?

Let's look at what's being developed.

The eHang 184


The eHang 184 is an Autonomous Aerial Vehicle. Autonomous instead of Unmanned because the whole point of this drone is that it can carry a human being. You can see the full details on the eHang Website.

Volocopter

e-volo, by Nikolay Kazakov

The eHang is not the only multirotor design capable of carrying a person, nor is it the first, Volocopter, from Germany has that distinction.

Volocopter has 3 designs planned, the 1 occupant VC-100, 2 occupant VC-200 and 4 occupant VC-400. At this stage Volocopter uses conventional controls for operating the aircraft, however it would not take much to develop autonomous designs and Volocopter does also have designs for unmanned versions of these 3 aircraft.

The difference between the eHang 184 and VC-200 is that the eHang uses an "X8" design with 8 motors and the Volocopter uses an expanded hexacopter design, with 3 motors on each arm that emanates from the fuselage, a total of 18 motors.

Safety
From a safety perspective, the Volocopter design has the edge. Loss of thrust to any 1 of the motors would not likely lead to a catastrophic crash. In fact, as long as they are not adjacent, 2 or more of the motors / propellors could probably fail without resulting in a tragedy. The eHang ? Not so much . Failure of any of the motors or propellors is likely to lead to severe instability. Secondly, should the motors be running with anybody in the vicinity or should someone try to approach or leave the eHang while the blades are turning ... umm , ye, not good.

Certification
Really this is the big issue for any aircraft. To transport people it has to be certified by local aviation authorities. Probably the closest to certification is the Volocopter. The prototype is registered in Germany and has done flight testing there. While it may seem cheap to make these aircraft, the cost of certification will add hugely to the final cost. There is a reason that helicopters are expensive.

Efficiency
Although battery and electric motor technology has made huge advances in the last few years, the reality is that it takes a lot of weight in batteries and motors to produce the amount of thrust necessary to lift more than 100 kg and then there is the limitation of flight time - while the aircraft may well be able to lift these weights, the more weight they lift, the more power is sucked from the batteries and the shorter the flight time. Longer flight time equals more batteries, equals heavier loads, equals bigger motors. And then of course there is the tendency for LiPo batteries to burst into flame when damaged. As you may tell, I am not yet a convert of using this technology for human transport.

Other types



By no means are these the only concept vehicles that are looking at alternative ways to transport. There is also Israel's Urban Aeronautics / Tactical Robotics' Cormorant / AirMule , using internal ducted fans - "Fancraft" and has a payload of 500kg, able to cruise at over 100 knots. These aircraft are planned to be in production by 2020. Of all, these are the aircraft which are potentially game-changers.

Unmanned Helicopters
The other alternative of course is unmanned helicopters. Adapting some of the technologies used for drone autonomy, self driving car technology, autopilot systems, it would be possible for small helicopters to eventually be autonomous, able to transport people without need for a pilot and with the ability to communicate with other small helicopters. Several helicopter manufacturers already have unmanned versions of their smaller helicopter designs.

Editorial content : Kevern Joubert (owner of Drone-Info and Southern Drones, helicopter pilot, drone pilot, app programmer, ideas guy)

Something to add ? I would love to hear other thoughts on this subject. Please register and add comments below.


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