Beyond toys, human-carrying drones are on their way

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The EHang 184 autonomous aerial vehicle is unveiled at the EHang booth at CES International, on Jan. 6, 2016, in Las Vegas. (John Locher / AP)

LAS VEGAS — If you’re used to thinking of drones as a passing fad, last week’s CES gadget show should give you second thoughts.

Tiny, self-piloted copters promise to buzzily follow you around like something out of a Neal Stephenson cyberpunk novel. New drones that could find lost wilderness adventurers or help them see out above treetops; others purport to carry a human passenger at the touch of a button.

None of this, of course, will be happening overnight. Limited battery life means that many commercial models can’t fly for more than about 20 minutes at best. Manufacturers haven’t yet figured out the best way to keep many tiny drones where they ought to be, given that GPS positioning sucks too much power for their minuscule batteries. Obstacle avoidance systems that would let small drones pilot themselves are still under development. And looming over the entire field are new government rules intended to keep people safe, but which may also slow innovation.

So far, none of those obstacles are slowing down an industry that appears to be in full lift-off. The Consumer Technology Association estimates that U.S. consumer drone spending will more than double to $953 million next year. ABI Research believes the global market for drones will hit $8.4 billion in 2018, with users ranging from the military and oil companies to farmers, journalists, and backyard tinkerers.

As drone capabilities continue to grow, drones may become a mass-market product for average consumers in about three years, says Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst of research firm Moor Insights & Strategy.

“You should be able to get a drone that can effectively follow you, not run into things, and find things on its own,” he says. “That’s pretty cool.”

That’s assuming, of course, that you’re not commuting to work in one. At CES, Chinese manufacturer Ehang Inc. unveiled a large drone that it said can carry a human passenger at speeds of up to 60 miles an hour. The four-armed quadcopter has been on more than 100 flights, mostly in wooded areas of Guangzhou, according to Chief Marketing Officer Derrick Xiong. Some — he didn’t say how many — have carried a human passenger.

Federal aviation regulators declined to comment on Ehang’s human-carrying drone, saying the company hasn’t submitted any proposal to authorities. The Federal Aviation Administration advised an Ehang representative at the show to contact its unmanned aircraft system office.

In contrast with the bigger drones, smaller ones were also on display. On the small drone front, Kickstarter-funded Fleye envisions its camera-bearing flying sphere as a kind of personal videographer that follows you around street corners; you’ll be able to switch between settings such as “selfie,” “panorama” and “virtual tripod.” And because it’s encased in what looks like a lightweight football helmet, its propellers pose less risk to bystanders.

“Instead of doing collision detection and avoidance, we just make sure if it collides, it won’t hurt,” says CEO Laurent Eschenauer.

Toy drone maker Spin Master Inc. showed off an augmented-reality game in which kids use a real-life drone to rescue tiny virtual people, put out fires and fight aliens. In essence, they’re interacting with a virtual world overlaid on the real world; they can see the virtual elements on a tablet they’re using to control the drone.

Robolink Inc. wants you to learn how to program using its “CoDrone,” a flying electronics kit you can instruct to jump off a table into someone’s hand with a simple line of code. CEO Hansol Hong describes the educational product as “where Khan Academy meets drone.”

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