(UR) Nevada — The China-based manufacturer of a fully automated, passenger-carrying transportation drone was given permission on Monday to run test flights in Nevada, marking the first time such technology has come to the United States.
Ehang, Inc., unveiled its prototype Ehang 184 drone at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in January. That’s where Mark Barker, business director for the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems — the state-sponsored nonprofit group that approved Ehang’s request — first encountered the vehicle.
“It caught everybody’s attention,” Barker told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Since then, Nevada officials and Ehang representatives have been working toward a partnership. Now, with official government approval to test within the state, Barker and his associates at the institute can help the Chinese company achieve accreditation under Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) guidelines.
“We will help them submit necessary test results and reports to the FAA and all that kind of stuff,” Barker said. “It’s a big deal to Ehang and it’s a big deal for NIAS and the state of Nevada because we will be helping them to test and validate their system.”
Compact and lightweight — the Ehang 184 is only four feet tall and weighs under 450 lbs — the vehicle would target short to medium range transportation needs for single passengers at a time.
After hopping into the cab and customizing settings such as lighting and temperature, passengers enter their destination into a touchscreen, tap a button, then sit back and enjoy the flight.
Governmental drone regulation has proved tricky, as officials try to balance the benefits of what the growing commercial industry can offer against the inherent dangers of this largely untested technology.
But many see bright days ahead for the future of commercial drone manufacturers.
“Passenger drones have huge potential,” Dr. Mirko Kovac, director of the Aerial Robotics Lab at Imperial College London, told the BBC.
“They can decrease congestion, offer flights in challenging environments and in developing countries where the road infrastructure is not as developed.”
While acknowledging that, currently, “people are afraid of drones” — most notably due to UAVs fast becoming an icon of military combat — Dr. Kovac feels those fears will eventually be put aside.
“I think society will overcome this once the technology is more proven,” he told BBC.
As for Ehang’s choice of Nevada as their testing ground, that decision makes perfect sense. The state has long been lobbying to bring what it sees as an industry on the rise within its borders.
Citing a report by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a 2015 article by Nevada Business magazine claimed that “Integration of unmanned aerial vehicles into the U.S. would create more than 100,000 jobs and have an economic impact of $82 billion nationally by 2025.”
Tom Wilczek, of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development, sees an opportunity. “Even if we only see 10 percent or only capture 10 percent of the market, that’s $9 billion,” he said of AUVSI’s numbers.
And the state appears ready to accommodate.
Already, Nevada is one of only six sites FAA-authorized to conduct trial research on UAVs. And more and more, universities and private nonprofits are working with state lawmakers to hammer out the best way to cultivate what signs suggest could soon be a booming industry.
“That’s what’s really exciting about it,” University of Nevada-Reno’s Warren Rapp told the Nevada Appeal back in January. “It’s a whole new chapter for Nevada.”
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