China could be the first in the world to start regular flights on pilotless passenger drones

Key Points
  • Chinese startup Ehang said it could start flights this year or next for passengers on its autonomous drones.
  • The company is working with the government in Guangzhou to come up with three or four regular flight routes.
  • If it happens, China could be the first country in the world for such a project.
Chinese-made passenger drone Ehang 184 carrying one passenger flies into the air in Guangzhou, China.
Southern Metropolis Daily | Visual China Group | Getty Images

Chinese startup Ehang says its autonomous passenger drones could soon be flying in the skies of China's biggest cities, making the country one of the first in the world to roll out such a project.

Ehang announced a pilot project with the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, in which it plans to set up three or four regular flight routes for passengers to take, the company's co-founder Derrick Xiong told CNBC on Wednesday.

That could take place either this year or in 2020, Xiong said.

If that happens, China would be the first country to carry out such a program where passengers are able to travel in autonomous flying vehicles. Other places like Dubai are also looking into it, carrying out tests, but have not announced programs that resemble Guangzhou's.

Ehang is not the only company pushing forth autonomous drones. Both Airbus and Boeing have tested their own versions of this technology in the past two years, while German startup Lilium is another player in the game.

For many of these companies, their vision is a world full of flying taxis that are able to provide a new form of urban transport, particularly in areas where traffic is a problem.

Roadblocks ahead

Before such flying vehicles can take off, however, there are a number of challenges, from needing new infrastructure to regulatory concerns, to convincing passengers that the technology is safe.

For a start, Ehang will be working with the authorities in Guangzhou to build up infrastructure like landing and take off pads, according to Xiong. The company was recently picked by the Civil Aviation Administration of China as the country's first company to start a pilot program for the development of autonomous passenger drones.

The startup is also working with Chinese regulators to develop an updated set of regulations to account for this new technology, as existing laws are lacking on this front. 

"We are seeing so much positive changes in the past several years," Xiong said. "When we started from … year 2016 ... nobody even know what is this all about. So earlier this year we have this official approval from China Civil Aviation Administration basically allowing us to have this pilot program … because we are ... working together ... to build up the standard."

But Ehang will also need to convince consumers that the flights will be completely safe. It claims that it has conducted over 2,000 test flights inside and outside of China in various weather conditions, and is confident of the safety standards.

"So we are confident to say it's safe because you know from the ... the original design of this aircraft, its safer than most traditional aircraft. Because we have 16 propellers, 16 motors and we have this super efficient safety power redundancy system, meaning even if you … lost the motors or even several motors you're still fine," Xiong said.

"Secondly, we have been working on this for many many years and we have … enough testing data … to prove this is a safe technology," he said.