Two Autonomous Passenger Drones Could Make Flying Taxis Possible

Ehang's 184 and Urban Aeronautics' Cormorant have both completed test flights.

Two drones powerful enough to carry passengers could usher in the era of autonomous flying taxis.

A year after debuting its passenger drone at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Shanghai-based Ehang released video footage this week showing its Ehang 184 undergoing unmanned test flights.

The Ehang 184 has been designed with an urban setting in mind. The single-passenger vehicle has eight rotors to accomplish vertical take-off and landings in narrows spaces. It can carry a payload of 220 pounds for about 20 miles or 23 minutes of flying time, just enough distance to make it to that meeting downtown. It flies by an app and so the passenger doesn't necessarily have to be a pilot - he just needs to plug in a pickup location and destination, ala Uber.

As you might imagine, overcoming the regulatory hurdles will be quite a challenge in the United States, where commercial drones have received limited approval to take to the skies. Ehang has been working toward that goal, though. Last June, the company struck a deal with the state of Nevada to collaborate on flight testing and training at the state's FAA unmanned aircraft systems test site. But to date, no such testing has taken place, according to Engadget.

It's possible Ehang might need to overcome some internal struggles before it can get its $200,000 passenger drone off to market. Earlier this month, the company laid off about 70 people from its staff of 300, reported the Chinese media site Xtechter. Those interviewed for the story told Xtechter that the layoffs were a scratch on the surface of bigger problems, including quality issues with the firm's smaller UAVs, executive infighting and improper use of funds.

Perhaps to distract from those concerns, reports Engadget, Ehang released the video of the test flights, albeit with vague details. Company co-founder and CMO Derrick Xiong, told Engadget that a few 184s have undergone a total of 200 test flights in China to date, but offered no further information.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported this week on the Israel tech company, Urban Aeronautics, which has been working for the last 15 years on an autonomous passenger drone named the Cormorant (a change from the previously named Air Mule). Back in November, the company performed its first autonomous test flight, demonstrating that the vehicle could fly low, even over hilly terrain.

According to the specs, the $14 million Cormorant is capable of carrying about 1102 pounds while traveling at a speed of 115 miles per hour.

Unlike the Ehang 184, which has external rotors, the Cormorant has internal rotors that allow it to fly more safely between buildings and below power lines without the worry of snagging the blades on obstacles. Urban Aeronautics is primarily developing the Cormorant as an autonomous rescue craft, evacuating civilians or military personnel from hostile zones or disaster areas.

"Just imagine a dirty bomb in a city and chemical substance of something else and this vehicle can come in robotically, remotely piloted, come into a street and decontaminate an area," Urban Aeronautics founder and CEO Rafi Yoeli told Reuters.

Although it's being developed as a rescue craft, any lessons learned from its development could spill into civilian life and push autonomous drones closer to a transportation reality.