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Autonomous Flying Vehicles Hit the Sky

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Joining planes and drones in the sky are autonomous flying vehicles. Organizations continue to invest in autonomous technology that can help reduce traffic, improve order delivery, and much more. While self-driving cars have been gaining traction in the news, ground transportation isn’t the only mode transportation looking to go autonomous.

China has been pushing autonomous transportation to help combat its congested roadways during rush hour. Ehang, an autonomous flying vehicle company, has made what it describes as the world’s first passenger-carrying electric autonomous aerial vehicle. The Ehang 216 is a two-person autonomous flying vehicle that can travel about 22 miles (35 km) at speeds of up to 80 mph (130 kph). 

In early September, Ehang announced that its headquarters in Guangzhou, China will serve as the pilot area for its flying cars. If successful, China could become the first country to have autonomous flying vehicles transporting commuters.

Volocopter has also debuted an autonomously flying air taxi to help combat congested roadways as well as decrease travel time. The German-based company aims to make city transport safe, quiet, and eco-friendly through the use of air taxis and an urban mobility ecosystem.

VoloCity, which would be Voloctoper’s first commercially licensed vehicle, can hold up to two people and a small carry-on. It can fly a distance of 22 miles (35 km) at an airspeed of about 63 mph (110 kph). Volocopter also plans on opening a “VoloPort” in Singapore by the end of this year. It will function as an airport, allowing passengers to check-in and wait in a lounge for their flight. The airport will also include an operations and services center where the air vehicles can be maintained and stored.

Obstacles with Autonomous Flying Vehicles

Not all companies are ready to invest in autonomous air travel. The drone-like planes use pure multi-rotor hover, which requires the use of a lot of energy and battery power. Because battery capacity is limited due to weight, these vehicles tend to have shorter ranges for the distance they’re able to travel. As mentioned above, both the Ehang 216 and VoloCity can only go about 22 miles. Longer distances would require complex mechanical changes. 

Furthermore, the drone design of these vehicles features exposed blades within reach. While vehicles like the Ehang 216 do not take off or land in unsafe areas, the blades do present a hazard to passengers because they can be easily reached.

Autonomous flying vehicles still have a long way to go. However, these recent developments illustrate how the innovative thinking is solving the engineering challenges behind autonomous flying vehicles. While there are many other problems that need to be addressed (including noise and public acceptance), teams are working on solutions to make autonomous flying vehicles a reality. In the future, these short-range vehicles could be useful in reducing heavy traffic, travelling to difficult to access locations, assisting emergency first-responders, and much more.

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Resources

Chang, Brittany. (18 September 2019). Volocopter has created an autonomous flying taxi you can hail with your smartphone. Business Insider. 

Templeton, Brad. (10 September 2019). Watch First Autonomous Passenger Flight By eHang’s ‘Flying Car’. Forbes. 

Chen, Cecila. (3 September 2019). Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it’s Ehang’s flying taxi. South China Morning Post. 

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