An unmanned Air Taxi EHANG 216 takes off at Generali Arena in Vienna, Austria, April 4 2019. Picture: JOE KLAMAR/AFP
An unmanned Air Taxi EHANG 216 takes off at Generali Arena in Vienna, Austria, April 4 2019. Picture: JOE KLAMAR/AFP

Vienna — As carmakers push ahead with self-driving vehicles, an Austrian aerospace company and its Chinese partner showed off their pilotless “flying taxi” for the first time in Europe on Thursday.

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 340kg, 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, cofounder 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, in 2018, aiming to offer short-haul services for passengers, industrial equipment and urgent medical deliveries.

The drone can fly at up to 150km/h for almost half an hour, CEO of FACC Robert Machtlinger said. “It can travel between 50km and 70km 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 said.

FACC says it has already received several thousand orders for the €300,000 drone, with the highest demand in China.

Competitors working towards 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.

Reuters

Chinese manufacturer EHang holds the first public demonstration of its drone-taxi in Vienna, taking aboard journalists for the first time and trying to sell the idea to authorities and potential users.