Chinese manufacturers DJI and Autel are dominating the drone market, even within the U.S. But much to the chagrin of American lawmakers—who have proposed and passed several measures to counter China’s drone dominance—a Chinese firm looks set to gobble up early market share for another emerging aviation technology.
EHang, an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxi manufacturer, on Friday obtained Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) type certification for its EH216-S, making it the first eVTOL aircraft in the world with such an approval. Type certification will allow EHang to operate the self-flying, two-passenger aircraft on commercial transportation and tourism routes in China.
The approval is a major milestone for urban air mobility (UAM) providers worldwide, proving that a major player can (in theory) adhere to rigorous safety standards. EHang said the certificate will open up commercial operations and allow it to independently design, develop, and manufacture aircraft.
In the U.S., eVTOL manufacturers must obtain individual production and airworthiness approvals following type certification. If operating the aircraft themselves, they also require a certificate for commercial air carrier operations.
“For the industry, the first type certificate for an eVTOL aircraft is a major step forward, as it shows that a player has met the expectations around safety, reliability, etc. that the regulator imposes to protect the public,” Robin Riedel, who co-leads McKinsey’s Center for Future Mobility, told FLYING. “It opens up the commercial market and allows the start of initial commercial operations, assuming operating regulation is also in place. That is an exciting moment for the industry.”
Similar to electric air taxis from U.S. manufacturers, the EH216-S—which has a 22 sm (19 nm) range, 80 mph (about 70 knots) cruise speed, and 485-pound payload—will be used for passenger transport, as well as tourism, logistics, and medical use cases.
But unlike its U.S. counterparts (with the exception of Boeing’s Wisk Aero), the aircraft will fly autonomous without a pilot on board.
“Embracing the [type certification] as our springboard, we will launch commercial operations of the EH216-S unmanned eVTOLs, prioritizing safety above all,” said Huazhi Hu, founder, chairman, and CEO of EHang. “This will enable us to steadily progress toward our strategic goal to be a UAM platform operator and commit to our mission to enable safe, autonomous, and eco-friendly air mobility accessible to everyone.”
What It Means
The Chinese regulator formally accepted EHang’s type certification application for its passenger air taxi in 2021. Since then, the company has worked to complete a set of objectives—tailored to the aircraft’s specific features—laid out by the regulator. In February 2022, CAAC published the “special conditions” for EH216-S, providing a basis of compliance for those objectives.
Over the past 30 months, EHS216-S underwent extensive lab, ground, and flight testing across China—and elsewhere—to test features such as flight performance, structural strength, and system functionality. The process scrutinized the entire aircraft, as well as its components and equipment, to test for faults or defects.
EHang said it has completed more than 40,000 test flights of EH216-S, including public demonstrations with passengers on board. Those efforts culminated in a final type certification flight test campaign for CAAC in August, clearing the runway (or vertiport) for approval.
The company’s Unmanned Aircraft Cloud System (UACS) was also approved by the regulator in August. The UACS will oversee EH216-S flights and support aircraft operations and management.
There is little publicly available information about China’s certification process for eVTOL. But in a 2022 interview with Vertical magazine, an agency official explained that China will first certify autonomous or remotely piloted designs before turning to aircraft with an onboard pilot.
AutoFlight is China’s other major autonomous eVTOL player, while Aerofugia, a subsidiary of Chinese automaker Geely, earned the first type certification basis for a piloted eVTOL in April. In June, Chinese regulators released early rules for uncrewed flight operations in the country.
The official said cargo logistics and “special missions” such as firefighting will be the earliest eVTOL use cases (the latter may be a nod to EHang, which develops the EH216-F specifically for fighting blazes in urban high-rises). Passenger flights would come next. But EHang, which could launch as early as this year, may be an exception.
UAM infrastructure in China is largely being constructed by eVTOL OEMs, with some airports leasing existing space for them to take off and land. Automotive OEMs are exploring solutions such as ground-based battery charging, while digital infrastructure will be built and operated by a Chinese state-owned company, open to public use. CAAC’s Aircraft Airworthiness Certificate Department and Air Traffic Management Bureau, meanwhile, is developing a standard system for eVTOL landing pads.
Regulators in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere could look to CAAC’s certification process, China’s UAM infrastructure strategy, and EHang’s ultimate success or failure as a litmus test. If the country can get those operations humming quickly, other nations could take a page from its playbook.
“CAAC’s experience and expertise in conducting the EH216-S airworthiness certification provides a significant reference for the global aviation industry and plays a pivotal role in shaping regulations, standards, and norms for unmanned eVTOL airworthiness certification, serving as a crucial benchmark for the industry worldwide,” EHang said in a press release.
Hu told CNBC the company will look to expand operations overseas as soon as next year. The EHang boss added that the type certification milestone simplifies the process for commercial operational approvals in regions such as the U.S., Europe, and Southeast Asia. But the firm will need to wait for foreign authorities to establish a process for mutual regulation of its CAAC approval.
“One interesting question is what standards and requirements different certification agencies apply [for eVTOL operations],” said Riedel. “Not only will that determine the level of reciprocity across agencies in the medium term, but also the level of safety the public can expect from these vehicles…However, the Chinese market is large, and a Chinese player could easily spend the first years growing there without the need to expand into other geographies.”
EHang will now ramp up manufacturing at its Yunfu production facility in China’s Guangdong province. Hu said the company is still settling on its first service location, and he declined to provide an official timeline for entry into service.
However, the firm is well positioned for success whenever that happens. It has more than 1,200 EH216-S preorders per SMG Consulting’s Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) Reality Index, which tracks eVTOL manufacturers’ progress toward commercial operations.
Those include customers in Japan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, where Prestige Aviation agreed to buy up to 100 aircraft, EHang’s largest preorder yet. Recently, the firm delivered five aircraft to Shenzhen-based tourism operator Boling, with another 95 deliveries on the books.
In addition to the EH216-S and its firefighting variant, EHang produces Falcon B drones for enterprise customers in industries such as logistics and public safety. It’s also developing the larger, four-passenger VT-30, designed for a 185 sm (about 160 nm) range.
The Playing Field
The EH216-S’s type certification is undoubtedly a major tipping point for the eVTOL industry, which up to this point had yet to produce a design regulators deemed airworthy. But there are several other players in the U.S. and elsewhere playing catch-up.
U.S. manufacturers Joby Aviation and Archer Aviation have each secured certification bases with the FAA and broken ground on scaled manufacturing facilities. Both companies are looking to ferry passengers to and from airports in 2025—beginning with cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—in partnership with major airlines.
Joby’s most recent milestone was the start of flight tests with a pilot on board, a key step toward “for credit” testing with the FAA and type certification in 2025. For Archer, which expects to obtain the approval in late 2024, it was the launch of its $142 million contract with the U.S. Air Force.
Meanwhile, Wisk—which, like EHang, will fly autonomously from the jump—has no timeline for type certification, though the FAA accepted its application. The firm is working on its G-1 certification basis and G-2 means of compliance paperwork, and it recently reached an agreement with Archer to become its rival’s exclusive autonomy provider.
Volocopter, based in Germany, is expected to launch commercial operations following the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris and will likely be the first to market after EHang. Another German competitor, Lilium, began assembly of its seven-seat Lilium Jet in September and is the only eVTOL manufacturer with certification bases from both the FAA and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), its counterpart across the Atlantic.
Like Wisk, U.S.-based Beta Technologies is looking a bit further out. It appears to be more focused on its conventional takeoff and landing design that it hopes to certify in 2025, a year before its Alia-250 eVTOL. Meanwhile, the U.K.’s Vertical Aerospace has struggled to keep pace, with delays and a recent crash pushing its type certification target back to 2026.
Type certification is certainly not the end-all and be-all for the eVTOL industry. Some players could even benefit from allowing UAM regulations, infrastructure, and demand to catch up with the tech. However, an early launch could give EHang valuable insights from seeing its service in action—an advantage no other firm has.