Why the ‘world’s first passenger drone’ is stupid


Here at Quill or Capture, we’re always covering the latest tech trends in aerospace and defence – we love it. We’ve written about everything including electric-powered aircraft, hover bikes for soldiers and even jet packs. And let’s not forget about lasers, anything with lasers on is pretty awesome.

Reporting on technology does have its frustrating sides though.

One of those is when a company tries to market their products as revolutionary and the ‘world’s first’, when clearly it’s not. Take for example the news this week that a Chinese company called Ehang unveiled the world’s first ‘passenger carrying drone’ at the CES show in Las Vegas. It’s gone viral, making the news on almost all the biggest media sites.

But there are at least three problems with the ‘Ehang 184’, not least its cold Communist name.

Firstly, there are already aircraft out there that are propelled by rotors and carry passengers – they’re called helicopters! Just because it uses a quadcopter-type configuration doesn’t mean it’s a big drone, it’s just another type of helicopter. And a crappy one at that, it can only fly at 60mph for 23 minutes. Compare that with a small Robinson helicopter that can fly 110mph for around 3 hours.

The quadcopter configuration does have its advantages, it increases mechanical simplicity because the rotors are fixed unlike standard helicopters, where the rotors adjust pitch making them extremely complex.

This makes sense in a small quadcopter where simplicity is key, especially for hobbyists. The disadvantage of quadcopters is that they are not as stable as helicopters with variable pitch, and this gets even more pronounced when you scale up (for more I suggest reading this write-up by a drone engineer).

Secondly, if we were to discount the fact it’s actually a helicopter and consider the Ehang 184 a fully-fledged ‘drone’ – then it’s not even the first to carry a person!

The aerospace industry has been developing optionally-piloted aircraft (including helicopters) that can be flown manned or unmanned for years now. Take the Kaman Aerospace K-MAX, which is mostly used as a manned heavy-lift helicopter but has also been developed into an unmanned autonomous aircraft used by the US military in Afghanistan.

While the unmanned K-MAX did not use a pilot in Afghanistan, whenever it is tested in the US there must be a pilot sat in the cockpit overseeing the autonomous systems. The same goes for other optionally-piloted vehicles that have been developed over the last decade, including an autonomous Sikorsky S-76, Boeing H-6U, an Airbus Helicopters H145 and AgustaWestland/PZL SW-4.

And last, and certainly the least exciting, is regulation. There is no way that you would simply be able to jump inside one of these and go off to do your weekly commute or buy some milk at the shops. Just allowing unmanned aircraft to fly in civil airspace has been one of the most convoluted processes in FAA history – adding an untrained human into the mix, forget about it!

In the end you would have to be a trained pilot to use the aircraft, removing the entire point of the passenger-carrying ‘drone’ in the first place. And with the pace of FAA reforms, don’t expect that to change anytime soon. My advice, go buy a helicopter instead.


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