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Chinese manufacturer ready for big takeoff with AAVs

By FAN FEIFEI | China Daily | Updated: 2022-12-16 09:35
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An autonomous aerial vehicle developed by EHang Holdings Ltd is displayed during an expo in Fuzhou, Fujian province, in April 2021. CHEN HAO/FOR CHINA DAILY

EHang Holdings Ltd, a Chinese manufacturer of autonomous aerial vehicles, is stepping up efforts to bolster the commercial operation of electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft in the fields of passenger transportation, logistics and smart city management, as well as expand its presence in the global urban air mobility industry.

At present, all the airworthiness certification plans of its autonomous aircraft EH216-S AAVs have been officially approved by the Civil Aviation Administration of China. The certification process has entered the final phase of demonstration and verification of compliance, said Hu Huazhi, founder, chairman and CEO of EHang, in an earnings call earlier this month.

"As we have almost completed the most arduous points in the process, we remain fully confident of completing the world's first airworthiness certification for the human-carrying unmanned aircraft system," Hu said.

Over the past few years, the company's two-seater passenger-grade AAV, the EHang 216, has completed more than 30,000 trial flights, including passenger-carrying trial flights and tests in extreme environments involving high altitudes, typhoons, deserts and heavy fog.

The Guangzhou, Guangdong province-based company has launched the initiative to develop 100 air mobility routes with a focus on the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area in the initial stage and plans to gradually expand to other parts of the country.

The company has completed more than 6,800 operational trial flights with the EH216 AAVs for aerial sightseeing at 15 operation spots in China, including first-tier cities such as Guangdong province's Guangzhou and Shenzhen, Shanghai and other tourist destinations, said Fang Xin, chief operating officer of EHang.

A report by global research company MarketsandMarkets said the global unmanned urban air mobility market is projected to grow from $2.6 billion in 2020 to $9.1 billion by 2030, at a compound annual growth rate of 13.5 percent.

The increasing demand for alternative modes of transportation in urban mobility for commercial applications and technological innovations in unmanned technology are the major factors driving the market, the report said.

Hu said autonomous passenger-carrying air taxis have the power to transform everyday life in urban areas since they can reduce pollution, expedite emergency services, and save individuals and businesses time and money through shorter travel times.

Yu Zhanfu, partner and vice-president of the China unit at consultancy Roland Berger, said an electric vertical takeoff and landing, or eVTOL aircraft, needs to go through full verification regarding safety and technological stability in sparsely populated areas or scenarios — such as natural landscape tourist destinations — in the early stage, before they can truly enter the urban air mobility segment.

Compared with traditional helicopters, eVTOL aircraft are smaller and lighter and require less area for takeoff and landing, with lower operating costs, all of which will give a big boost to their popularity, Yu said. However, they still face technical challenges and uncertainties in various weather and geographical conditions.

EHang inked a partnership with Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company Ltd, an aircraft engineering and maintenance company and a subsidiary of Swire Group, in October. The two parties plan to cooperate in multiple areas like manufacturing and assembly, continued airworthiness, digital platforms, aircraft maintenance and talent training.

Meanwhile, the company is ramping up efforts to expand its footprint in overseas markets. Its EH216 AAV completed a demo flight tour across four other cities in Japan in July after its demo flights in Okayama and Fukushima last year.

The demo flights in Japan included over-the-sea flights and point-to-point flights, which are both believed to be the firsts for eVTOL aircraft in Japan, and has laid a solid foundation for the sector's continuous expansion in the Japanese market.

In April, EHang received a preorder for 100 units of EH216 AAVs from Prestige Aviation, an Indonesian aviation company. It is the largest-ever preorder EHang has received for its passenger-grade AAVs in Asia, the company said.

Hu said as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership brings favorable policies to international cooperation, the company will further accelerate the development of urban air mobility in the Asia-Pacific region.

"Passenger-carrying AAVs, which apply many advanced technologies, are a new area and will boost technological innovation and development for the whole industry," said Pan Xuefei, a senior analyst at market research firm International Data Corp.

However, because of the high safety and performance standards that must be met, such autonomous air taxis will still be subject to strict trials before large-scale commercial operations can begin, Pan said.

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