RALEIGH — More than 100 people, including Gov. Roy Cooper, state lawmakers and leaders of the N.C. Department of Transportation, gathered at the State Highway Patrol's test track south of Raleigh Tuesday afternoon to witness a bit of aviation history.
They were there to see what was billed as North America's first public demonstration flight of a pilotless air taxi. As they braced themselves against a stiff northwest wind, the EH 216, a two-seat drone made by the Chinese company EHang, was parked some 500 feet away, down a slight hill, outside of their view.
NCDOT had spent nearly 10 months arranging for EHang to bring its drone to Raleigh, in conjunction with the department's annual Transportation Summit this week. Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon said North Carolina not only wants to be ready for new technologies like this but also hopes to lure the companies that are developing them.
"Autonomous connected vehicles of any type are where transportation is headed," Trogdon said in an interview. "We want to bring these kinds of opportunities to make sure that we're economically competitive."
Sixteen sets of electric motors and propellers lift the EH 216 into the air and move it forward along pre-programmed routes at up to 80 mph, said Derrick Xiong, Ehang's cofounder. The craft weighs about 600 pounds and can carry another 500 to 600 pounds of cargo or people, Xiong said.
Ehang has built dozens of them and has made demo flights like this one in Amsterdam, Vienna, Qatar, Dubai and in several cities in China, Xiong said. He said the craft is in the "very early stage of commercialization" in China, mostly limited to sightseeing flights.
The Federal Aviation Administration doesn't permit autonomous aircraft to carry people, so no one flew in the EH 216 on Tuesday. Under FAA guidelines, NCDOT had to treat the demonstration flight as it would an airshow, keeping spectators back 500 feet and having a fire truck and ambulance on hand.
Still, comparisons with the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk were inevitable, starting with Cooper, who, like Trogdon, spoke about the potential economic benefits of building relationships with aviation companies such as EHang.
"The Wright Brothers made North Carolina first in flight 116 years ago," Cooper said. "But first in flight isn't just something that we were -- it's something that we are."