eHang is set to become the world’s first company to get an electric VTOL air taxi type certified and into commercial service, after successfully completing its entire flight test program with China’s aviation authority. Oh, and it’s autonomous.
It took a little longer than expected, but China appears poised to beat American and European eVTOL efforts to market, with daylight a distant second. After making a spectacular debut at CES 2016, eHang’s pilotless, no-frills, manned octocopter aircraft have charged through the development and certification process, and should soon be taking paid customers.
Most of eHang’s competitors are working on certifying their aircraft with the US FAA or Europe’s EASA – which is proving a painfully long, expensive and complex process, since eVTOLs represent an entirely new category of aircraft.
Many are looking to extend their trip range by using complex tilting thrust systems that allow efficient winged flight as well as VTOL and hover modes, making things even more complicated. Nearly all are building four- to five-seat aircraft with human pilots on board.
Explainer: What is an Autonomous Aerial Vehicle (AAV)?
eHang, on the other hand, is certifying in China, where the CAAC (Civil Aviation Administration of China) has loosened the rules.
In the name of an “innovation mindset,” the CAAC intentionally accelerated the pace of certification, immediately clearing a path to autonomous operation that may take EASA and the FAA a decade to allow, and greenlighting the company to fly manned “demonstration” tourist sorties – nearly 10,000 of them, with the public on board, in no less than 20 locations across China – over the last few years.
With an eVTOL production facility already fully operational since 2021, eHang has also now received CAAC approval for the “Unmanned Aircraft Cloud System” that’ll manage fleets of these EH218 aircraft operating in shared airspace.
The basic octocopter layout and relatively small battery in this two-seat machine give it a flight range of just 30 km (18.6 miles) with its maximum passenger payload of 220 kg (485 lb) on board, so it’ll be much more of a short-range tourist experience and cross-town traffic buster than some competitors that are aiming for 200-mile (322 km) ranges and beyond.
eHang says autonomous flight will be safer than piloted eVTOLs, with remote operators on standby at all times to take over if there’s an issue with the computers. I guess we’ll see.
“We are thrilled to announce that we have successfully completed all the planned tests for EH216-S type certification,” said eHang founder and CEO Huazi Hu, in a press release. “This achievement marks a significant unprecedented milestone in the global emerging eVTOL industry, underscoring our unwavering dedication and pioneering advantages.
“I would like to express my gratitude to the CAAC’s officials and the review team as well as the Company’s airworthiness certification team for their unwavering efforts and persevering spirits … I believe the remaining procedures will be finished very soon before the official authorization of the type certificate. It will pave the way for our commercial operations in the next stage.”
Check out an example of one of eHang’s passenger-carrying demo flights in the spectacular video below. Who’s putting their hand up to go next?
EH216 Completes Passenger-carrying Trial Flights in Jishou, Hunan, China