An Interview with EHang

In EHang’s perspective, which areas would first have a large-scale application of eVTOL?

EVTOL has a wide range of applications, covering areas like manned transportation, tourism, logistics, medical rescue, fire emergency and many more. Many organizations around the world are constantly exploring the commercial application of eVTOLs. As a pioneer in the urban air mobility (UAM) industry, EHang manned eVTOLs have completed extensive flight tests under various scenarios such as manned transportation, air tourism, air logistics, medical emergency response, fire rescue and so on.

In a variety of application scenarios, eVTOL’s advantage in the field of aerial tourism is the most obvious.

The scale of the air tour market is enormous. Many scenic areas began to adopt low-altitude tour projects. China Air Transport Association estimated that in 2020, the number of tourists in China’s top 100 tourist attractions reached 834 million, of which the natural scenic sport suitable for low-altitude aerial tourism accounted for 50% ofthe total tourist – around 420 million. The low-altitude aerial market is expected to be worth around 58.5 billion yuan annually.

In terms of policy, the air tour industry has obtained policy support. As early as 2017, the Ministry of Transport, the Civil Aviation Administration of China and other ministries jointly issued the “Opinions on Promoting the Integrated Development of Transport and Tourism”. It emphasized “supporting the development of low-altitude tourism, encouraging the development of air tourism by-products such as aerial sightseeing, aerial experience and aerial sports”. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism issued “The 14th Five-year Plan for Cultural and Tourism Development” in June 2021. The Plan requires the development of low-altitude and inland river tourism.

EHang’s autonomous aerial vehicles have a significant cost advantage over helicopters for aerial tours. Compared with the traditional single rotor helicopter, the multi-rotor and purely electric-powered EHang autonomous aerial vehicle is flexible, attractive, occupies a smaller space, and has strong mobility. Moreover, it can turn fixed-point high frequency automation and clustered schedule flight according to preset routes into reality. This is aligned with the future trend of having automation and improving the sightseeing experience for scenic areas. In addition, EHang’s aircraft use autonomous technology to reduce the cost of pilot training and salary expenses which can greatly reduce operational costs and improve operating efficiency.

EHang plans to continue to accumulate flight data and operational experience through operating in aerial sightseeing and promoting the development of areas relating to urban air mobility. This includes the technical iteration of aerial vehicles and performance settings that align with application scenarios, the exploration and reach of unmanned air traffic management systems, the layout and construction of infrastructure for UAM applications, and the application and promotion of digital operation platforms for consumers and operator and other applications.

What is the attitude of the Chinese government towards Urban Air Mobility (UAM)?

Regulators in various countries have attached great importance to the UAM industry in recent years, encouraging enterprises to innovate and actively promoting the formation of relevant laws and regulations whether they are in the Asia-Pacific region or in Europe or the United States. When developing the newly introduced UAM industry, countries will definitely consider the local general aviation and urban development process. In this regard, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) have been encouraging and supporting the urban air mobility (UAM) industry. In 2020, the General Office of the State Council issued a series of notices on accelerating the strategic layout of urban air mobility development, suggesting that the development of urban air traffic should be included in the national development strategy and relevant industry standards and regulatory policies should be promoted.

For a new industry as UAM, the thinking of the CAAC has always been innovative. In 2018, EHang became the first experimental unit approved by the CAAC for the airworthiness of manned autonomous aerial vehicles and volunteered to assist the CAAC to construct the operational risk analysis, airworthiness standards formulation and verification of manned autonomous aerial vehicles.

How does EHang perceive the operation and the potential customer of eVTOLs?

First of all, the logic of air traffic is different from that of ground traffic. The error-tolerance rate for air traffic is lower than that of ground traffic. In the case of driving failure on the ground, people can pull over, but the safety of aerial traffic needs to be guaranteed to the maximum extent. To ensure the safe and orderly operation of air traffic, the flight and operation of air traffic in the future will be a unified operation mechanism, which will be operated by the company to ensure efficiency and safety.

Second, the air travel services introduced by EHang are targeting individual users. EHang positions itself as an urban air traffic platform operator, hoping to make this emerging air traffic service available to everyone. Based on our autonomous driving and cluster scheduling technology, EHang will construct a reasonable, safe, and efficient traffic network above the city to provide air travel services for the general public.

Unlike other manufacturers such as Volocopter and Joby Aviation, EHang went straight with developing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). What is the reason behind this product plan?

Mr. Huazhi Hu, the founder of EHang, was determined to build a safe automatous aerial vehicle that uses automated flying instead of piloted flight to reduce the risk caused by human error after two of his friends has passed away in aerial accidents. Mr. Hu introduced the full backup concept from the IT industry to aerial vehicles. In 2016, the world’s first manned autonomous aerial vehicle was released.

EHang has been committed to ensuring that everyone can enjoy safe, automatic and environmentally friendly air traffic since its inception. We believe our manned autonomous vehicles should not be the preserve for pilots, but products for everyone. Fully autonomous flight means there is no need for a pilot to fly the vehicle nor the need for passengers to acquire any flying skills or qualifications. This will significantly save labor costs and maximize operational efficiency.

Some people will use the concept of autonomous car driving to compare aerial autonomous driving, arguing that the transition from piloted to autonomous driving should be made. In reality, the operation logic of autonomous flying in the air is completely different from driving on the ground, there are more vehicles and more obstacles on the ground. The air environment is relatively simple, and it is a broader, three-dimensional space. Without the interference of complex road conditions, it is safer for the aerial vehicle to fly automatically according to fixed routes and more convenient for orderly management.

EHang is the first enterprise to develop and construct the command and dispatch system platform of autonomous aerial vehicles. In addition, it has been constantly optimizing the cluster management technology, so that the aerial vehicle and operational platform integrated naturally to set the foundation for EHang’s large-scale autonomous aircraft operation.

The use of autonomous flying and intelligent command and dispatch systems platform technology can also provide a more efficient cluster management, which will be an important guarantee for future flight operations. Without the cluster management of the command and dispatch system platform, the management between aerial vehicles is arduous and the automatic flying is no longer safe and reliable. EHang’s EH216 can be remotely controlled and can implement fully automatic flying. We only need to send a command to the aerial vehicle or choose an executable route, then the aircraft can follow the mission command and execute the command under the premise of ensuring safety without human intervention. During the flight, our autopilot and flight control systems collect and analyze data from sensors mounted on the AAV. It uses advanced algorithms to make intelligent navigation decisions, including course corrections and weather adaptation. More intelligent sensors will be added for automation. Through multi-sensor data fusion and heterogenous redundancy, autonomous driving with a higher degree of intelligence, safety and reliability will be realized.

After the introduction of the EH216, EHang had subsequently introduced the VT-30, a lift and cruise model. What is EHang’s strategic plan for its products?

The is capable of intra-city air traffic, while VT-30 is capable of meeting the needs for longer distances, complementing the intercity air traffic network. These two product series will serve as the core of EHang’s service-oriented operational strategy in the future. The short-haul manned autonomous aerial vehicle represented by the EHang 216 can be combined with the long-haul manned autonomous aerial vehicle represented by VT-30 to complement each other and improve the air traffic network within and between cities. EHang will continue to overcome the technical and production barriers, and focus on improving product safety, endurance and payloads.

After a period of validation and exploration, EHang chose the multi-rotor and composite wing configuration. Our vision since the establishment of our company was to ensure the safety of passengers, so the safety of the aerial vehicle is the first priority. The multi-rotor configuration can have multiple sets of backups, improving the overall safety of the aerial vehicle. The simple configuration brought a greater degree of safety. Tilting and other designs will bring complexity to the operating system, resulting in malfunction rate.

EHang’s new model launched in 2021 – VT-30 has a composite wing design that guarantees flight backup capability under all flight modes. To improve flight efficiency based on this design, EHang created a lightweight design for the entire vehicle; thus, the aerial vehicle not only has good backup robustness but has a good longdistance flight capability.

How is the certification process of EH216?

EHang started the preparation for the airworthiness certification in 2017 and formally submitted the certification application for the EH216 model to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) in December 2020. The CAAC officially accepted the application at the beginning of 2021 and completed the formation of a certification team – the “National Team” in April to officially carry out the certification process of the EH216.

Since the launch of the certification project for the EH216, CAAC and EHang continue to hold several expert meetings to jointly formulate standards for the EH216 certification. During the process, EHang has made a significant contribution toward autonomous flying, command and dispatch systems and other aspects of the development of relevant standards. CAAC has completed the basic formulation of the airworthiness certification standards for autonomous aerial vehicle systems at present.

Recently, the Aircraft Airworthiness Certification Department of the CAAC issued the Special Conditions for EH216-S Unmanned Aircraft System (Draft for Comments), where it determined the airworthiness requirements applicable to the specific design and expected use of the EH216 and planned to use them as the certification basis for the aircraft. We are currently conducting relevant tests, such as flight control tests according to the DO-160, flight control and communication link backup switch test, the static test of the whole machine and key parts and other necessary tests.

As a pioneer in the UAM industry, we have accumulated a significant amount of test flight data and valuable practical experience under a variety of flight environments that will help us accelerate the airworthiness certification process. We have reached a consensus with CAAC on airworthiness certification guidelines and have carried out operation trials in accordance with the basic principle of “combination of examination and transportation”.

EHang introduced the “100 air mobility routes initiative”. What is the project and what is its current status?

In April 2021, EHang announced the “100 Air Mobility Routes Initiative” as part of EHang’s intelligent air traffic platform operational strategy. The plan is expected to open 100 aerial traffic routes. We are positioning the business as a new mode for air traffic, including island hopping, low-altitude aerial tourism, suburban connections, and other applications. The project will focus on Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area and gradually expand to other parts of China. Through these world-leading operational projects, EHang takes the global leader role in air traffic operation by autonomous aerial vehicles and electric vertical take-off and landing technology. EHang and its partners have carried out aerial tours and shortdistance air traffic trial operations from operating points in Guangzhou, Hezhou, Shenzhen, Zhaoqing, Sanya and other cities by the end of November 2021. Under the relevant compliance framework, the EHang 216 autonomous aerial vehicle has completed a total of around 2,800 operational test flights at the seven operating points, constantly setting new safe flight records.

In 2021 September, EHang reached a cooperation agreement with China Eastern General Aviation, a major low-altitude general aviation operator and helicopter service provider in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, as well as a pilot company for reforming the low-altitude industry in China affirmed by the Civil Aviation Administration of China and the Shenzhen municipal government.

EHang and China Eastern General Aviation have established a set of air traffic demonstrational operation norms for aerial sightseeing in Malunshan Base located in Linhai, Shenzhen. The base began to operate in the middle of November 2021. In the early stage of the project, EHang will perform six EH216 test flights per day. EHang hopes to further increase the operating frequency with the expansion of market demand. EHang expects the Malunshan Base to serve more than 30,000 passengers per year after expanding its scale.

In addition, EHang has established a set of air traffic operation systems and the mechanism that covers route planning, flight operation, safety management, regulatory compliance, digital operation platform, sales, and marketing.

EHang has set up an operations team of about 50 people, and will continue to expand. Core members of the operations team have worked in world-renowned or regional leading aviation, automotive or technology companies, such as Airbus, Hainan Airlines, Hong Kong Airlines, HK Express, BMW, CITIC Direct, IBM, etc.

With the efforts of the professional operations team, EHang will continue to expand its operation points and routes. With the abundant operational experience and the accumulated safe flight record, EHang hopes to convert the operation points from trial to commercial operation after obtaining the certification for the EH216.

The infrastructure required for eVTOL takeoff and landing is also an important element for UAM. Does EHang participate in the planning of UAM infrastructure design or construction?

Taking off and landing platforms, charging facilities, operational and maintenance hangars and other infrastructure play a vital role in the UAM operation system to ensure the safety and efficiency of AAV. EHang has specially formulated a set of infrastructure construction specifications according to its AAV features design. The AAV has advantages in safety, stability, vertical takeoff and vertical landing, attractiveness, flexibility and convenience in deployment and low noise levels. It can meet the rapid establishment of UAM outlets even in cities with limited space. It can effectively use existing helipads on skyscrapers, small general aviation airports, the rooftop of large business stations, and the roof of parking systems as a landing platform.

We worked with partners and customers around the world to promote the construction and operation of infrastructure based on EHang’s UAM infrastructure design requirements. For example, EHang cooperated with China Eastern General Aviation to take the Malunshan Base in Shenzhen as the regular operation point of AAV; cooperated with Greenland Hong Kong to carry out AAV aerial tour trial operations in Greenland of Yuhu Town, Zhaoqing; established an AAV airport in Hezhou with local customers; established the 5G Air Intelligent Transportation Experience Center and intelligent AGV parking building with the Traffic Investment Group for Guangzhou Development Zone to provide integrated transportation for ground and aerial traffic. EHang has worked with Giancarlo Zema Design Group, an Italian architecture firm, to design ecological terminals. It has also worked with Globalvia Group, a transport infrastructure concession management company, and Catalan Airport Management Group to promote the construction and layout of UAM infrastructure.