Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 48 seconds.
Editor’s note: Louis Liu, founder and CEO of China-based consulting firm DAP Technologies, acted as Vertical’s industry liaison/translator and also provided his personal insights for this article.
Asia, along with North America, Europe and Australia, is expected to lead the world in eVTOL adoption. To provide insight into how certification of eVTOLs is rolling out in China, and how industry operation will be initiated there, experts from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and other organizations discussed six important things to know about China’s plans to certify eVTOL aircraft.
1. The CAAC is beginning with certification of automated/remote-piloted eVTOLs before piloted.
The first reason why CAAC is taking this approach, says an unnamed CAAC expert, “is the implementation of major strategies such as digital economy, smart transportation and smart civil aviation. The second is to support innovation and exploration of unmanned aerial vehicle [UAV] certification, and the third is to serve the real needs of industrial development.”
Liu noted that there is immense potential for using cargo eVTOLs and UAVs in China because it is a large country with huge transportation requirements. “As a big potential market, logistics will drive the eVTOL OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] to optimize their solutions for cargo eVTOL/UAV, and test the new ATM/UTM [air traffic management/unmanned aircraft systems traffic management] systems to mature the hardware infrastructure and digital infrastructure,” he said.
Another CAAC expert also sees the importance of logistics to the Chinese economy as the reason why CAAC is focusing on certification of automated/remote-piloted eVTOLs first. “Currently, autonomous trucks, buses, small vehicles, as well as autonomous drones and eVTOLs, are very hot in China,” he said.
He believes that in the beginning, “air transportation will focus on the islands, mountains and remote districts to enhance transportation efficiency. And this also brings more safety by avoiding flying over the cities.”
2. There are many firms in China developing autonomous flight/remote-piloted eVTOLs.
“According to publicly-disclosed information, there are currently dozens of companies in China developing eVTOLs for autonomous flight/remote control,” said an unnamed CAAC expert. “According to their category, they can be divided into subsidiaries of state-owned enterprises like the big OEMs in aviation, aerospace and large aircraft, startup companies like EHang, AutoFlight, etc., and large logistics companies like Meituan, SF Express, JD.com, etc.”
There are also automotive companies in the mix, such as Xiaopeng and Geely.
Liu added that EHang is the only firm to have developed an automated/remote-piloted eVTOL for passengers from day one, with its EH216-S model.
“The other OEMs prefer to deliver piloted eVTOLs first for passengers,” he said, “and look at automated/remote-piloted eVTOLs for passengers in the future.”
3. There is no established timeline for CAAC certification of automated/remote-piloted eVTOLs
Professor Yi Yu from the Civil Aviation Management Institute of China (CAMIC) explained that according to public information, the certification for automated/remote-piloted eVTOLs is “in full swing.”
“The Special Conditions for the EHang EH216-S unmanned aircraft system have been announced,” he said, “but there is no specific timeline for public disclosure.” Yu added that there is no public information showing that CAAC has received any applications for airworthiness certification of piloted eVTOLs.
In terms of the timelines for automated and remote-piloted certification, an unnamed CAAC expert said “CAAC takes the safety management of civil aviation seriously. The automated/remote-piloted eVTOL applications are implemented in accordance with the standard airworthiness certificate, but the applicant’s ability still has distance from the expectation. Whether the certificate can be issued at the end of 2022 depends on the applicant’s performance.”
Dr. Zhipeng Hao from the China Academy of Civil Aviation Science and Technology (CAST) added that “the length of time spent on certification depends on a variety of factors, such as the complexity of airworthiness requirements, the difficulty of compliance verification items, the applicant’s maturity in demonstrating compliance, etc. Different certification projects will have different performances in the above factors, and the corresponding project review time will also be different.”
4. China has multiple strengths in eVTOL industry development
An unnamed CAAC expert noted that going forward, China has three advantages that can be used in its eVTOL industry development and research and development. These are the existing light and small UAV industry and supply chain, software and hardware secondary development and optimization capabilities, and the massive data produced from the UAV market.
Liu added that “China is more open and flexible. The speed of eVTOL and UAV development here is very fast. This is because the industrial cluster advantage here is better than other places in the world, and the talent pool is deep and diverse.”
5. Cargo logistics and special missions will be the first eVTOL applications in China
As mentioned, cargo logistics will be the expected first use of eVTOLs in China, but Liu said special missions like firefighting will also be among first uses.
Passenger flights for intracity travel will come after, as this requires eVTOLs to have full airworthiness certification in China, which will take a longer time than certifying eVTOLs for cargo transport. Within the passenger use case, Liu believed eVTOL flights in low-altitude isolated airspace will take the lead.
“In the long view, urban air mobility and regional flights are both very big passenger markets,” he said. “Traffic jams are a big problem in the big cities in China, and so UAM provides a good solution and this will create a new living style. Also, China is a country with a lot of mountains, so having regional flights by eVTOL will save a lot of time without huge infrastructure costs.”
An unnamed CAAC expert believes regional flights will be the early market for passenger eVTOLs, but in 10 or 15 years, UAM will be the mainstream.
6. eVTOL industry infrastructure in China is mostly industry-based at this point
At present, eVTOL infrastructure in China is being constructed by eVTOL OEMs or leased to the existing airports, explained an unnamed CAAC expert. “There have also been a few local governments building special runways or even airports for large-scale UAV test flights [but not eVTOL],” the expert said. Right now, there is no professional eVTOL infrastructure construction company in China.
The CAAC expert added that with personally seeing the first main use of eVTOLs in China to be cargo logistics, the main infrastructure needed “is a digital operation ecosystem, including but not limited to air routes, communication navigation monitoring, cloud computing, network communication, vertiports for automated vertical take-off and landing, etc.”
Liu noted that in China, as elsewhere, hardware infrastructure and digital infrastructure for eVTOLs will each support the growth of the other. He added that the automotive OEMs in China, such as Geely, Volkswagen and Xiaopeng, are contributing expertise to develop the eVTOL industry, for example, in battery charging and other hardware infrastructure issues.
He noted that the fully-autonomous eVTOL relies very much on digital infrastructure, and in China, this will be built and operated by a state-owned company and open to public use.
At the same time, “hardware infrastructure can be more flexible and it may be open to involvement by any company.”
Right now, a standard system for UAV landing pads, as explained in public information, is being developed by CAAC’s Aircraft Airworthiness Certificate Department and Air Traffic Management Bureau.
“The Airport Association and the Navigation Association are actively undertaking the corresponding work and are respectively organizing the research on ‘Construction Specifications of Light and Small UAV Logistics Take-off and Landing Yard,’” he said. “And for operation, they are developing ‘Technical Specifications for the Flight Field of Civil Vertical Take-off and Landing Airports.’ These sets of UAV specifications will provide specific guidance plans for vertiport construction and operation in China.”
And as it is everywhere on the planet, electrical grid capacity must be increased in China for eVTOLs and other electric vehicles to take hold, but Liu is optimistic. “We will get there,” he said.