If you want to see it up close, you have to wait for the three or four people in front of you to finish taking pictures or lose interest. You feel as if you're standing three-deep at a bar, only here, on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center, there are fluorescent lights a mile overhead, everyone is wearing a lanyard name tag, and some drag around a rolling backpack. There are 4,137 companies exhibiting on 2.3 million square feet of floor space. But you just had to stop at this one. EHANG, the banner says. People in the crowd read from the press materials or parrot what they've heard about the machine in front of them, which is a drone, much like a drone you'd pilot by remote control in your backyard, only this one has an eighteen-foot wingspan, is about five feet tall, and has a cockpit with a four-point harness and air conditioning. This one is meant for people.
Flies for twenty-three minutes.
One passenger, for now.
No, you don't even need a license!
Lands itself if there's an emergency.
I read $200,000.
This is CES, the annual Consumer Electronics Show, the world's largest concentration of prototype gadgets, most of which will prove too ambitious, or too superfluous, to ever see production. But this one is capturing imaginations. You push to the front for a better view of it, perched on a raised platform on the hideous convention-center carpet. The Ehang 184. Chinese men wearing glasses and jeans and Ehang hoodies occasionally open one or both of the vehicle's upward-swinging doors to show a photographer the mounted tablet inside. Behind it, against the false walls of the booth, looped video that looks stylistically rooted in the early 2000s shows a fake Ehang 184 flying over mountains, then across a lake. The CGI water beneath the rotors doesn't ripple. The physical prototype on the platform doesn't actually turn on—a tube behind the cockpit that runs underneath the stage powers the 184's lights. When I speak to someone from Ehang's external public-relations company ten days after CES, he says the drone is actually functional, it just needs a battery.
A couple of weeks from now, as the Ehang 184 is being packed up and shipped to the company's U.S. office in San Francisco, the most skeptical of journalists and industry veterans will start writing their small words about the manned drone they saw at CES. In the sport of technology coverage, victory is measured by one's ability to identify the next big thing, and also to identify flops before they flop. One tech writer awards the Ehang with the superlative "Best Vaporware," the term for a product that is advertised but never actually produced and sold.
Maybe it is. Maybe the Ehang 184 will never make it off its plywood platform in Las Vegas, and maybe it won't be the thing that finally delivers on the long promise of flying cars, a promise made in the pages and on the covers of this very magazine. The first mention is in April 1906. Maybe it's not time to declare that the moment when humans and cargo will move through uncrowded, low-altitude airspace is finally here, and that we'll all be driving our little drones to work within five years. But maybe this is also true: At the time of the 184's unveiling, 2016, some of the people who are most qualified to have opinions on the subject are more optimistic about personal air travel than they have ever been.
"You've got a number of companies out there saying, 'This is around the corner,' " says Carl Dietrich, who founded the flying car company Terrafugia in 2006. "The technology wasn't there five years ago." What's new? Efficient electric motors. Sensors that can detect obstacles in midair. Software that could create a kind of low-altitude air traffic control. Very specific technologies are evolving and converging to produce vehicles that one could be forgiven for calling a flying car, a flying car that comes complete with the level of freedom and convenience last introduced to mankind with the invention of the kind of car that drives on roads.
And this, too, is true: We arrived at this point because companies like Ehang are trying.
In March 2015, the astrophysicist and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson was interviewing Elon Musk, the CEO of electric-car company Tesla, on Tyson's podcast Star Talk. Tyson asked Musk about the potential for flying cars, and Musk identified challenges such as weather, noise, and how a greater number of airborne vehicles would introduce a greater potential for something heavy to fall on our heads. For personal aircraft to become popular, Musk said, "It's got to be autopilot."
Musk has thought about this a lot. Among the many notable functions on the Tesla Model S, the company's flagship vehicle, are Summon and Autopilot. With Summon, the car can open a garage door and back itself out. On the road, in Autopilot mode, it can drive through traffic, braking and moving evasively as it encounters red lights and obstacles. It feels strange to ride in a car that's moving so adeptly, without the assistance of your hands or feet. But the fear is only because it's unfamiliar—and also because you wonder in the back of your mind whether a computer glitch could send you careening into a ditch.
There's little need for you or Musk to worry about laws, either. In most states, self-driving cars are legal because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn't said they're illegal yet. Autopilot might be new to cars, but airplanes have worked this way for years. On a typical flight, a Boeing 777's human pilot will often control the aircraft for less than ten minutes. Sensors and software handle everything down to the landing. Crashes, in fact, are often caused by humans attempting to take control. "We're really terrible drivers, and we're really terrible pilots," says Mary Cummings, the director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University and a former F-18 pilot who is working on a DARPA project to build a robot copilot. "The sooner we can get to an autonomous flying car, the safer we'll be on the roads and in the sky."
George Yan, cofounder and chief operating officer of Ehang, sees his quadcopter as a leap toward the vision of this autonomous ecosystem, free of fallible humans. "The sky is basically a clean slate," Yan says. "There's distortion on the ground. A dog might run down a street, or someone might pull out instead of going right. In the sky, we have an easier problem to solve."
There are two acronyms important to the evolution of the new flying cars: V2V, or vehicle-to-vehicle communications, and SAA, or sense and avoid. When versions of both work together, each vehicle is a transponder, observing relevant information like bad weather or a new building and sharing it with other vehicles. When there are a hundred thousand Ehang 184s in the skies, Yan says, a user's route will go into a collective queue, and Ehang software at a local control center will map out an appropriate path according to the vehicle's battery range. "If I want to take that three or five years down the road, I would say that these command–control centers will be popping up everywhere," he says. "We will provide the software, we'll provide the technology, and more than likely we'll need to partner with a government to ensure that these things are being monitored and regulated properly."
Yan runs Ehang's software side. Before joining, he was a vice president at Microsoft, overseeing the company's cloud storage, Windows, and server expansion in China. He was born in Shanghai, raised in Minnesota, and now spends most of his professional life back in China. Yan is also one of the few people in Ehang's upper management who speaks fluent English. (He was at CES, but is based at Ehang's main testing facility in Guangzhou. The company also has offices in Beijing, Shanghai, and San Francisco.) Like almost everyone in the personal air vehicle business, he brings up The Jetsons a lot. Always The Jetsons. "It gets really cold in Minnesota and school gets closed, so you have nothing to do but watch cartoons, and my favorite cartoon was The Jetsons," he says. In the opening credits, we see George Jetson dropping off his children and then "Jane, his wife" from a levitating vehicle with a bubble windshield, like a midcentury concept car, that even drives itself for part of the sequence. Yan believes it could happen. "Do you remember when Microsoft said they had a dream of putting a computer on every desktop?" Yan asks, recalling Bill Gates's vision from the early 1980s. "We have a dream of putting a passenger drone on every rooftop."
The press materials that Ehang circulated before the Las Vegas unveiling refer to "Pegasus" and "Aladdin's flying carpet." In a way, Yan's dream is mankind's dream: We want to fly. We have always wanted to fly. Icarus wanted to fly. The Wright brothers wanted to fly. Igor Sikorsky wanted to fly. Howard Hughes wanted to fly. We fly in commercial airplanes all the time, but it's easy to forget the majesty and the miracle of flight when you're in a middle seat in row 29. Street-legal, Federal Aviation Administration–approved airplanes have been manufactured and sold since the 1950s, but even modern variants like the Moller Skycar and Terrafugia Transition were never affordable or practical or accessible enough to become anything more than a novelty. The autonomous system that Ehang proposes promises to overcome the obstacle of accessibility: You wouldn't need a pilot's license. It flies itself.
The reason has a lot to do with technology getting cheaper. The essential hardware on an Ehang is in the same family as thin, fast smartphones and user-friendly drones. Paul Moller, inventor of the Skycar, has been building flying cars for decades, and has invested heavily in research and development. "We spent about $15 million on hardware and software development," he says. "Today, I can go out and buy these drone computers for $500." Ehang's other great promise: You wouldn't need a runway in your backyard.
Moller has a big chart on his office wall showing every vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) aircraft ever built, about sixty in all. "Every one has a number of deaths associated with it," he says. The most famous is the V-22 Osprey, responsible for dozens of pilot deaths. It's an illustration of how difficult it is to build a craft that can take off straight up, adjust to efficient aerodynamics for long-distance flight, then restabilize for landing. In developed environments like the suburbs and cities where Yan envisions Ehangs buzzing around, VTOL capabilities are essential.
Nick Noreus, an Air Force major and an applicant to the Mars One mission, is working on what he describes as a "flying road-legal motorcycle." He started flying the V-22 Osprey in the summer of 2009, after about six years of flying helicopters. "The Osprey is not a dangerous aircraft," he says. "You just need to know how to fly it." That means adjusting the angle of the rotor structures, or nacelles, according to the vehicle's airspeed, with the help of a computer. As with any VTOL vehicle, hovering or flying in a straight line at speed isn't hard. It's the transition, where, within about three miles of the target location, Noreus goes from an airfoil-friendly 200-knot speed to a helicopter hover, balancing the nacelle angles for a landing.
The Ehang's giant-drone design, with four arms and eight propellers, seems like it would make this easier. It's a setup that works for consumer drones that fly for short periods of time. But it's inefficient for traveling fast or far, which explains the 184's short, twenty-three-minute flight time. But there are other reasons to think a big drone won't be the ultimate solution to building a VTOL vehicle for the masses.
"The 184 has all these exposed rotors that are a severe hazard in any sort of close proximity operation," says NASA principal investigator Mark Moore, who has worked at the space administration for thirty-one years, mostly researching VTOL and the civilian applications of low-altitude personal air travel, including the experimental new Gridlock (see above). He explains the concepts of distributed electric propulsion and vortex energy with both the calmness and the enthusiasm of someone who is concerned not with how to make money from this stuff but with the realities of making it work.
"I can honestly say the technology was not available to come up with feasible transportation. When you have two technology frontiers colliding, which is what's happening with electric propulsion and autonomy, the capabilities that are possible with these new vehicles just become insanely better than what's out there right now," he says. Electric propulsion, with simple, compact, reliable, lightweight, and cheap electric motors connected directly to rotors, is what will supposedly make urban civilian aircraft feasible. An Osprey's gas turbines require flexible cross shafts to run through the wings, articulating as the wings flex in flight. What looks like an otherwise reasonable solution to VTOL is a heavy, complex machine unsuitable for civilian applications. To make a passenger craft maneuverable enough for VTOL, you need multiple small rotors that can be slowed down or sped up quickly. That's part of what makes consumer drones so stable, agile, and user-friendly. But linking multiple rotors, the number you need to make a VTOL vehicle work reliably, to a combustion power source doesn't work.
An electric, or hybrid–electric setup, Moore says, allows you to stuff multiple motors into a wing, creating a redundancy that would make a vehicle efficient, agile, and safe if a component fails. "We could have eight small electric motors, each one turning a simple propeller," he says. "It's a completely redundant solution." But to Moore, the 184 is a harbinger, not an arrival. "There are ten different companies out there developing much better vehicles," he says. "Single, personal, vertical-takeoff, electric aircraft, and every one of them is better in every way. They just haven't gone public yet."
But Ehang has, and now we're talking about it.
To understand why Ehang might, at the very least, foretell a future in which we will fly around in our own drones, we look—as we so often do—to Amazon, the bookseller. When a company valued at more than $240 billion starts lobbying the government to let it populate the sky with thousands of unmanned vehicles, Moller says, "now you've got real power."
Gur Kimchi is the vice president and cofounder of Amazon Prime Air, the wildly exciting service that does not yet exist: A customer clicks "buy" and a small unmanned drone drops a package on the lawn a half hour later.
As a child growing up in Israel, Kimchi built and flew kit planes with his father, a pilot. "I was interested in the technology—ergonomics, construction of airplanes, avionics, computers that make airplanes work," he says. "It's not an accident that I ended up with what I'm doing now." The vehicle on which Amazon's endeavor depends is a hybrid of a fixed-wing aircraft and a consumer drone. It would look militaristic and sinister were it not covered in blue-and-orange paint. "Once it accelerates to a fast enough speed, it flies like an airplane," Kimchi says. "When you have to land, it converts to a multirotor." He explains that this is the type of craft that exists because the sensors, motors, and communications systems that power it have become small, fast, and cheap—just like Moller says.
Amazon has advertised Prime Air with a commercial starring Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson. They have conducted trials, of which video footage exists. The company has detailed literature about how its V2V and SAA systems will work. But the question of when—always the question—yields the unsatisfying answer, "within a few years." Regulatory certification is one barrier, mainly the FAA and its equivalents, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in Europe and the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). Carl Dietrich of Terrafugia expresses a familiar, reluctant acceptance: "The FAA moves on its own time scale." Getting FAA approval for a vehicle, as Dietrich, Moller, and other flying-car manufacturers have done before, isn't impossible. Safety requirements are mostly based on how many people's lives are at risk during flight. The FAA's safety certification is a statistical analysis, ultimately a percentage of an aircraft's potential for putting passengers' lives at risk. A commercial jet, for example, with many passengers and a crew to step in when the autopilot fails, must have a less than 0.0000001 percent chance of catastrophic failure.
That's just the airworthiness part. There is also the operator's-license part, which is the part that determines whether we will live the dream George Yan had after watching TV on snow days in Minnesota. A company called Icon Aircraft, based an hour east of San Francisco in Vacaville, California, has built a compact aircraft called the Icon A5, which looks like a wonderfully egalitarian people-mover. It falls under a classification called light sport aircraft. Light sport aircraft require only twenty hours of instruction to fly, half of what's needed to get a private pilot's license. But for both, you're permitted to fly only in clear skies. Flying in what's called instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), or clouds and rain, you need seventy-plus hours of flight training. Hazardous weather, you want five-hundred-plus hours of experience. You also need a body of water or a runway to take off in and land an A5.
"When we drive cars, the threats are pretty clear," says Ken Goodrich, another NASA researcher who focuses on machine interfaces and autonomous transportation. "In aviation the threats tend to be more distributed: 'We're flying into potentially hazardous weather. Is this something that's going to get us into trouble?'?" Automation is so new that defining regulatory criteria for something like the Ehang could take years. "I swear, they've been trying to come up with standards for more than twenty years," Goodrich says. Current standards assume a crew. The FAA doesn't yet have criteria for an aircraft where the only human on board doesn't know how to get to safety.
It's an expected obstacle. Ambition always outpaces regulation. But if no one tries to build a flying car, the regulators will never be forced to regulate, which is why Ehang's decision to roll out a nonworking prototype at CES is monumental. It forces conversation, it forces competition, and it might eventually force action.
Last fall, on a brilliant, blue September day, Icon Aircraft brought two Icon A5 planes to New York City for a media event. They are adorable, the Icon A5s. Miniature airplanes. As the rush-hour traffic began to pile up on the West Side Highway along the Hudson River, drivers inching along turned their heads to see the two little white flying machines cruising low—lower than the George Washington Bridge, almost level with the morning traffic on the road, silhouetted against the mighty Palisades on the New Jersey side of the river. Now, this is New York City—it's hard to surprise anybody. New Yorkers see and hear and smell so much madness and oddity and humanity and machinery in the course of a week that a couple of small planes flying over the river don't merit a second thought. But if you looked at them, if your car was stopped and you really looked at them for a moment, you saw that these were no Cessnas. They were individual flying machines. The two planes flew in tandem, inaudible from a distance, perfectly quiet vehicles carrying a single person—or two, as some Icon A5s can carry a passenger—from point A to point B. The traffic on the highway built and built, and somebody cut somebody off, and the GPS warned of a jam up ahead. But the little planes? They flew and flew, unfettered, swift, as yet unregulated, free.
This story appears in the April 2016 issue of Seniorhelpline