eHang promises huge range with its new autonomous eVTOL air taxi
China's most prominent eVTOL manufacturer has announced a new long-range "lift and cruise" aircraft for inter-city travel. The EHang VT-30 will take two passengers up to 300 km (186 miles) under completely autonomous control.
EHang has been flying simpler multicopter designs for several years now and, remarkably for this sector, the company has not been shy about putting people in them. EHang founder Hu Huazhi flew to work in an EH116 back in 2019, for example, and the company has gone so far as to let members of the public take some scenic test flights in the EH216 in cities all over China, including right over populated areas.
This kind of activity highlights one of EHang's key advantages in the eVTOL sector: China will not be following US or European aviation authorities in its approach to advanced air mobility, as we discussed in our recent interview with Sergio Cecutta on the AAM "reality index." It's blazing its own trail forward, with EHang front and center. None of EHang's aircraft make provisions for a pilot, so the key here will be accelerating the certification of autonomous passenger aircraft – something that most European and American companies are viewing as a five-to-10-year challenge.
"Unmanned aviation is an integral part of the construction of intelligent civil aviation and may become the primary form of transportation in the future," said Shijun Yin, Chief Engineer of the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC), as the CAAC and EHang met last month with the "unprecedented" aim to officially advance the certification process for the EH216. "The Government and companies should work together to promote the development of unmanned aerial vehicles and adhere to high-quality standards when building the civil aviation infrastructure. Both the applicant and CAAC should have innovation mindset in the certification process while benchmarking international standards."
Interesting stuff. Either way, EHang's multicopter designs may be simplistic and thus potentially easier to get through a certification process, but like all multicopter designs, they can't go very fast, or fly very far on a battery charge. The two-seat EH216 tops out at 130 km/h (80 mph) and with its maximum payload of 220 kg (485 lb) on board, its range is severely limited at 35 km (22 miles). It'll need to sit on a charger between cross-town flights.
Longer trips require winged aircraft for efficient flight, and EHang has been talking for some time now about adding a long-range aircraft to its stable. Today, we get our first look at it with the public launch of the VT-30.
This is a lift-and-cruise design, with eight VTOL props stacked coaxially on four propulsion pods balanced nicely around a small teardrop cabin, and a single pusher prop behind it. A wide wing provides lift for efficient forward flight, and thanks to a set of wheeled landing gear, the VT-30 will be able to take off and land on runways where they're available, as well as helipads where they're not.
EHang says this thing will travel up to 300 km on a single charge of its as-yet-unspecified battery pack, enabling flight times up to 100 minutes. These are very impressive figures for the sector, but we assume they're only achievable with conventional runway takeoff and landing, and that power-hungry VTOL operations will shorten that range considerably. While no top speed or cruise speed has been announced, you can expect it to be significantly quicker than the EH216, and possibly capable of speeds around the 200-km/h (120-mph) range.
Compared to the lift-and-cruise Voloconnect recently launched by Volocopter, the VT-30's different approach is very clear. Where the majority of major players in this field are working on four-, five-, or even seven-seat air taxis, EHang's two-seater looks tiny and lightweight, closer to something like Wisk's Cora. The Wisk comparison is particularly relevant, since the Cora is also completely autonomous. Ditching the considerable weight of a pilot and extra passenger seats will definitely help squeeze useful range out of a battery.
EHang says the VT-30 is "geared towards inter-city travels among city clusters (such as the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, Yangtze River Delta, Bohai Rim, etc.)." It's already prototyped at full scale, and the company says it's already flown in vertical takeoff and landing tests, with a lot more testing to be done in the coming years.
“Our passenger-grade AAV EH216 is already fully equipped to travel in the cities with its lightweight and streamlined structure, and the launch of the VT-30 provides a powerful complement to the inter-city air traffic network by meeting needs for covering longer distance,” says Mr. Huazhi Hu, Founder, Chairman and CEO of EHang, “Moving forward, these two product series will be used as core development for a service-oriented operations strategy to improve the safety, durability and capacity for carrying both passengers and goods. We will work continuously to obtain regulatory certification for our various AAV products, including the VT-30, and provide a more convenient and efficient public urban air mobility operational services.”