The future of autonomous aircraft in cities bears more resemblance to a centralized bus system rather than on-demand vehicles like taxis, Chinese drone maker Ehang said in its first white paper released on Wednesday.

Why it matters: The Beijing-based firm is veering from the flying taxi model adopted by other players in the field, including Uber and Volocopter.

  • Ehang raised $46 million in its initial public offering (IPO) on Nasdaq in December 2019.

Details: The white paper explored “the potential of [urban air mobility] through insights into UAM applications and commercialization based on practical use cases,” according to Edware Xu, the startup’s chief strategy officer.

  • Ehang proposed a UAM system requiring all aerial vehicles, including passenger and cargo drones, be registered and operated through a centralized platform.
  • Centralized management of drones—like a city’s public bus system—is the best way to improve traffic congestion, transport safety, and bolster municipal functions such as emergency response and police, Ehang said in the paper. This model resembles bus operation rather than independent taxis.
  • This centralized control center coordinates vehicle auto-piloting to address safety issues and traffic congestion, the paper said. Ehang has designed its autonomous aircrafts with this system in mind, it said.
  • Ehang said in the paper that aerial travel in cities will come sooner than most expect due to progress it has made. It pointed to a 2018 blue paper by investment bank Morgan Stanley, which predicted that autonomous aircraft transport will be commonplace by 2040.
  • Ehang is “on the verge” of realizing “full commercial operations” of its autonomous aircraft vehicles in 2019 to 2020, which would put Morgan Stanley’s estimate at the conservative side of the spectrum, the paper said.
  • The paper also mentioned using the Beidou navigation system, China’s homegrown version of the globally used, US government-owned global positioning service (GPS).
  • The startup could not be immediately reached for comment.

Context: Ehang caused a splash in 2016 when it debuted the world’s first electric passenger drone, called Ehang 184, at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

  • On Dec. 6, just days before its IPO, Ehang demonstrated a flying taxi ride in Guangzhou.
  • The startup is eyeing international expansion, and is already making moves in that direction. On Jan. 8, it conducted its first trial flight in the US with its autonomous, two-seater Ehang 216 passenger drone. In October 2019, it signed a deal with the government of Azerbaijan to set up a command-and-control center at the airport in its capital city of Baku.
  • It faces competition in the race to commercialize passenger drones from startups like Volocopter and Kitty Hawk,  aerospace heavyweights Airbus and Boeing, and ride-hailing giant Uber.
  • Last week, Uber unveiled a new passenger drone developed in collaboration with South Korean car maker Hyundai.

Eliza Gkritsi

Eliza is TechNode's blockchain and fintech reporter. When she isn't obsessing over the rise of distributed ledger technology in China, she helps with editing.

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