Pilot-less air taxi takes off in Vienna demonstration flight

Science

VIENNA (Reuters) – As carmakers push ahead with self-driving vehicles, an Austrian aerospace company and its Chinese partner showed off their pilot-less “flying taxi” for the first time in Europe on Thursday.

People attend a test flight for Ehang 216, a two-seater autonomous aerial vehicle of drone maker EHang in Vienna, Austria April 4, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

The drone’s 16 propellers hummed loudly as it rose above the pitch at Vienna’s Generali Arena, home to soccer club Austria Wien. The slim plane, which weighs 340 kg (750 pounds), circled in the air briefly and came down within a few minutes.

The EHang 216, which can seat two passengers, has been tested comprehensively and is essentially ready for mass production, said Derrick Xiong, co-founder of Chinese drone maker EHang.

Joining the race for new autonomous aircraft services that do not require runways, EHang entered a strategic partnership with Austria’s FACC, owned by Chinese aerospace group AVIC, last year, aiming to offer short-haul services for passengers, industrial equipment and urgent medical deliveries.

The drone can fly at up to 150 km per hour (90 mph) for almost half an hour, FACC Chief Executive Officer Robert Machtlinger said. “It can travel between 50 and 70 kilometers depending on the payload.”

The passenger cabin is small, with leg room that taller passengers might find less-than adequate, an Austrian photographer who took part in a demonstration flight told Reuters.

FACC says it has already received several thousand orders for the 300,000 euro ($336,000) drone, with the highest demand in China.

Competitors working toward offering autonomous flying cars early in the next decade range from aerospace giant Airbus to Uber, and AeroMobil.

“Technically… urban mobility, flying without a pilot is possible, it’s not a dream, it’s existing,” said Machtlinger.

“What is hindering us to go into larger volumes is regulation,” he added. A future legal framework for autonomous flying vehicles should regulate communication with other planes and helicopters and provide traffic rules, he said.

Austria supports international efforts to quickly establish the necessary regulation, said transport minister Norbert Hofer.

“I hope that Austria will be the place where thousands of these drones, of these air taxis will be built and I hope that very soon we will see a lot of these air taxis in the air,” Hofer said.

Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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