By Tom Duening / www.forbes.com / February 1st, 2016
The 2016 Consumer Electronics Show again lived up to its hype, providing a glimpse into the future of technology. One technology in particular caught my eye—the Ehang 184, a human-sized AAV (autonomous aerial vehicle). The Ehang 184 was developed by Beijing-based Yi-Hang Creation Science & Technology Company in part because the company’s founder and CEO, Huazhi Hu, an aviation enthusiast, had lost two friends to aviation accidents in recent years. The Ehang 184 is his vision of a safe, autonomous quadcopter drone for human point-to-point flight.
The Ehang 184 caught my attention for a couple of reasons. One is that I’ve often daydreamed about what it would be like to soar like a bird. I couldn’t help but imagine myself climbing into my own personal Ehang 184 for a weekend excursion or quick trip to the store. The other, less fanciful reason was that it provoked a stream of thought about the future of human transportation.
Most of the technological advances that have disrupted and enhanced human life over the past several decades have centered on three predominant domains: communication, shopping, and healthcare. Innovation in these domains has created a world in which each of us is continuously connected, with opportunities to shop, order goods, and consume at a moment’s notice over the course of longer and longer lives.
Today there is another category of technological innovation that is ripe for disruption: mass personal transportation. The last truly disruptive mass personal transportation technology was the Model T, created at the beginning of the 20th century by Henry Ford. Ford’s innovation kick-started our automobile culture and led to the creation of cities, bridges, highways, and many other human artifacts designed around and for Model T–era personal transportation.
A number of modern personal transportation innovations have been receiving increasing attention, such as Uber and Lyft, and autonomous vehicles being designed by Apple and Google. But these technologies are incremental, not disruptive. They are based entirely on the existing two-dimensional road-and-grid infrastructure built to accommodate the Model T. The proposed hyperloop transportation system, which Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk hopes to build out in the years ahead, would be revolutionary but it will also be immensely expensive, require massive infrastructure, and will not be personal.
The Ehang 184 provides a glimpse of what truly disruptive mass personal transportation could be like. This technology introduces three-dimensional transportation that no longer confines us to moving about on an earth-bound grid. With a maximum altitude of 11,000 feet, the Ehang 184 enables us to leverage a great deal more space to transport people from one point to another. In addition, the Ehang 184 takes advantage of rapidly increasing advances in drone tracking and sensing technologies. Each Ehang 184 is able to use GPS technology to pinpoint its own whereabouts, and it is able to keep track of everything else flying in its vicinity. Able to compute, set its optimal flight path, and be flexible enough to adjust in emergencies, the Ehang 184 can become a failsafe personal transportation technology.
Were I placing an investment bet on the future of human personal transportation, I would certainly consider innovative technologies that slip the surly bonds of earth and enable personalized transport—especially transport that may allow us to avoid traffic congestion, road rage, and all the other headaches of our current system.
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