World's first type-certified eVTOL aircraft is ready for service
Way back at CES 2016, eHang stunned the world with a little autonomous passenger-carrying octacopter concept. Seven years later, that concept has evolved into the world's first fully certified eVTOL air taxi, cleared for commercial air taxi work.
It's a testament to the design simplicity of the eHang EH 216, which now flies on eight coaxially mounted pairs of propellers for 16 props in total, and autonomously ferries two passengers up to 30 km (18.6 miles) between charges, at a top speed around 130 km/h (81 mph).
These are humble figures compared to the 200-mile, 200-mph (322 km/322 km/h), five-seat Joby S4, which leads team "rest of the world" in the race to FAA and EASA certification, and is also capable of tilting its six large rotors forward for highly efficient, wing-supported, horizontal cruise flight – but on the other hand, the eHang aircraft's specs are well-suited to cross-town rooftop-to-rooftop hops over congested road systems, as well as short scenic tourist flights.
The type certificate, issued on Friday, is also a testament to the Chinese Civil Aviation Authority's determination to get commercial eVTOL flights happening well ahead of the US and European competition in the name of national strategic advantage.
To be clear, the eHang 216 is type certified only in China. The US FAA and European EASA aviation authorities aren't widely expected to start issuing eVTOL type certificates until 2024 at the absolute earliest, with 2025 probably more likely and 2026 a distinct possibility. And even once they do, the eHang aircraft is unlikely to be certified in these other markets for a long, long time, since it's fully autonomous, and nearly every other air taxi chasing certification will be piloted.
Which makes it doubly remarkable – as does eHang's amusing description of the aircraft as a "passenger-carrying unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)."
In some senses, the type certificate (TC) doesn't change a whole lot; eHang has been taking passengers on 'demonstration flights' all over China for several years now, whereas Joby has only just celebrated its first tentative test hovers with a pilot on board. Very few other Western eVTOL air taxi companies (Volocopter being a notable exception) have even reached that stage.
The main thing that changes, really, is that now eHang is allowed to charge passengers money, and can start to scale up its commercial, manufacturing and ride operations.
“I extend my heartfelt gratitude to CAAC, the expert team, and all EHang employees for their unwavering dedication," said eHAng Founder, Chairman and CEO Huazhi Hu in a press release. "Our self-developed EH216-S passenger-carrying UAV system has finally met high expectation to secure the first TC in the global eVTOL industry, marking a significant chapter in civil aviation history.
"Embracing the TC as our springboard, we will launch commercial operations of the EH216-S unmanned eVTOLs, prioritizing safety above all. This will enable us to steadily progress towards 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.”
The ability to start turning a profit years before anyone else in the business should indeed place eHang – and by extension, China – at a significant advantage over its foreign rivals.
Some would say China's decision to rush this bleeding-edge technology through to the market is a risky approach that could place lives in jeopardy, but on the other hand, the EH 216 has already flown more than 40,000 test flights and has satisfied all the conditions required by the regulators to prove it's safe.
On the other other hand, let's be honest; if and when an eHang aircraft has a horrible crash, we may never hear about it. All Chinese media is state media, and there's a well-known tendency for anything potentially embarrassing to just sort of not get published. Heck, for all we know, a dozen eHangs may already have rained out of the sky onto the heads of pedestrians.
And on the other other other hand, eVTOLs are built on some pretty dang reliable technology; batteries, propellers and electric motors are well proven at this point, and it's fair to argue that there's a lot less to go wrong on these things than on any aircraft with a combustion motor. And they use distributed propulsion with massive redundancy, so even if something goes wrong and a motor shuts down on the EH 216, there are 15 others ready to compensate and complete the flight safely.
From that point of view, perhaps China's accelerated approach makes a lot of sense, and the rest of the world is allowing itself to get needlessly bogged down in red tape. But as they say, every sub-clause of every rule in the aviation rulebook has been written in blood.
Either way, commercial eVTOL flights will very soon be a thing, and the aviation world will be watching with interest to see how the market reacts to these aircraft, where they become useful, and what lessons China may teach the rest of the world at the dawn of electric VTOL flight.