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EHang 184 drone
The Ehang 184 drone has been tested in China. (Credit: Ehang)

Look! Up in the air! It’s a drone, it’s a plane, it’s … Super-Quadcopter!

Droves of drones were unveiled this week at the International CES show in Las Vegas, but the one that made the biggest splash was arguably the Chinese-made Ehang 184, a remote-controlled quadcopter that’s so big it can accommodate a 220-pound passenger.

Guangzhou-based Ehang says the electric-powered, 440-pound craft can be charged up in two to four hours and fly for 23 minutes. It’s designed to fly at an altitude of about a quarter-mile at speeds of up to 62 mph, but if you push it, the vehicle can go as high as 11,000 feet.  It even has air conditioning and a reading light.

 

The super-quadcopters are due to go on sale later this year, at the super-hefty price of $200,000 to $300,000.

Ehang stresses that the drone is optimized for safe, autonomous operation. Flight commands to take off, hover and land can be issued from the ground or by the passenger, using a Microsoft Surface tablet. Each of the craft’s four arms has doubled-up rotors for redundancy’s sake. The company says it’s setting up 24/7 control centers that can bring the quadcopter down gently if something goes wrong.

The Associated Press quoted chief marketing officer Derrick Xiong as saying the vehicle has been flown more than 100 times at low altitudes in a forested area in Guangzhou, including several times with a person inside.

There’s just one thing: As it stands right now, flying a passenger in the Ehang 184 in the United States would be problematic. The company’s co-founder and chief financial officer, Shang Hsiao, acknowledged to AP that the craft occupies a legal “gray area.”

And despite the marketing, it’s debatable whether the Ehang 184 could be considered a drone at all.

Hsiao said company officials are working out procedures with the Federal Aviation Administration and other regulators so that test flights can be conducted in the United States.The company maintains that passengers shouldn’t need a pilot’s license to be flown in the quadcopter.

“Because the 184 AAV [autonomous aerial vehicle] represents an entirely new category of technology, there are regulations and agencies that are still catching up,” Ehang said in a statement. “We are in uncharted waters, and are working closely with government agencies across the planet to develop and regulate the future of transportation.”

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