Will China’s new passenger drone carry soldiers into battle?

(From the National Interest)

By Michael Peck

Will tomorrow’s soldiers be transported into battle by drones?

There was no mention of that amid the hoopla when Chinese manufacturer Ehang unveiled what it called the world’s first passenger drone at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month. The Ehang 184 is about the size of a golf cart, a 5-foot-tall, 440-pound, all-electric helicopter that sort of resembles a big bicycle trailer with four arms and eight rotors.

China's EHang 184

China’s Ehang 184

The company describes the 184 as capable of carrying a 220-pound passenger for 23 minutes at a speed of 60 miles per hour. The 184 “is a manned drone capable of automatically carrying a passenger through the air, simply by entering a destination into its accompanying smartphone app,” the company boasts. “Due to the 184’s fully automated navigation, made possible by Ehang’s 24/7, real-time flight command center, passengers have no need for a pilot’s license—they simply sit back and let the drone take over from there.”

Ehang CEO Huazhi Hu says his goal is to make flying easier and faster for people, as well as revolutionize commercial flight in areas such as medical care, shipping and retailing. But even with all the media frenzy over an aircraft that George Jetson might have flown, there was no mention of using it as a battlefield transport, yet.

But that is almost certain to happen. Already the Pentagon has experimented with cargo drones in Afghanistan. At the same time, the U.S. military is aggressively pursuing “manned-unmanned teaming,” where the pilot of a manned aircraft, such as an Apache helicopter or F-35 fighter, controls multiple drones. In fact, U.S. Army scientists recently noted that as “Army aviation continues to implement increasingly advanced levels of automation, human operators will transition from their current roles actively piloting vehicles to serve instead as Mission Commanders supervising highly intelligent autonomous systems.”

The natural convergence of these trends is a transport drone for military personnel. The advantages are obvious: smaller and cheaper aircraft that only need a passenger compartment, without the extra weight and cost of a cockpit and trained pilot. Read more

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