April 22, 2019
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Science & Technology

A bird? A plane? No, it's a pilotless flying taxi!

By Luis Lidón

Vienna, Apr 4 (efe-epa).- It is a taxi, it flies, and, no, it is not some futuristic dream but a reality, as Chinese company EHang touched down in Vienna on Thursday for the European unveiling of its autonomous two-seater drone.

Coming in at roughly 300,000 euros ($336,562), the Ehang 216, which harnesses the power of 16 propellers, lifts off vertically from the ground, has a range of 35 kilometers (22 miles) and can travel at some 130 kph (80 mph).

The Chinese firm hopes to lower the cost through its collaboration with Austrian aerospace developer FACC.

"If you land in New York and you want to go to Manhattan, there are a couple of options: one is you take a helicopter and it costs $800 dollars per ride. Or you can take a taxi, it takes 60-120 minutes, depending on the traffic, and the ride is around $70 to $85," Robert Machtlinger, FACC president, said.

"This is pretty much what EHang is targeting," he said, adding that the company aimed to make a two-person trip between JFK airport to Manhattan, for instance, between $50 and $85.

Derrick Xiong, an EHang co-founder, said he hoped the pilotless craft would revolutionize urban transport.

"We have also been conducting thousand of flying tests in the past years both manned, with passengers, and without, with different weather conditions, day and night," Xiong said.

He said the biggest challenge he faced in the project was not technological, nor to do with regulations, but rather he had to change the way people thought about the prospect of flying in a drone that is both cheap and safe.

"And that's why we are here. And trust me, before you fly with us and after you will feel completely different about this kind of industry," he told the press.

Norbert Hofer, Austria's transport minister, was enthusiastic about the technology and underscored the fact the 216 was less noisy and safer than a helicopter.

"It is fully electric, it's clean, it's safe," he said.

He added that five rotors could stop working mid-flight and the craft would still land safely.

In a charm offensive aimed at instilling public trust in its product, EHang organized a showcase at Generali Arena stadium in the Austrian capital for members of the press to test the product themselves, in what was a world first as previous tests have been conducted in private.

The drones function autonomously and passengers only have to select their desired destination, such as a taxi rank outside an airport, for example, and the vehicle does the rest.

Although the drone will complete its journey autonomously, supervisors will be at hand to monitor proceedings and intervene if necessary.

Currently, the drone's range is limited by its battery-type, something the company wants to develop and expand.

"I believe autonomous air mobility will be possible earlier than autonomous driving," Hofer said.

What does seem certain is that this technology will become commercially available in China before anywhere else, Xiong said.

EHang was already engaged in talks with Chinese aviation authorities to hammer out the standards of this new industry, something the company looks to do outside of China at a future date.

At the display in Vienna, the drone lifted off from the Generali Arena to a height of about 15 meters off the ground before landing in the center of the soccer pitch again a few seconds later.

"The flight sensation was better than a helicopter, more stable and quiet," said Christian Bruna, an epa photographer who let the drone take him for a spin.

"I felt as though I was in 'Star Wars,' certain things in the capsule just worked without you having to do anything," he said.

However, Bruna, who is 196 centimeters (6ft 4") tall, said he struggled somewhat with the legroom. EFE

ll-jk/jt/hh

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