Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 48 seconds.
Editor’s Note: Louis Liu, Founder and CEO of China-based consulting firm DAP Technologies, served as Vertical‘s Industry Liaison/Translator and also provided his personal insights for this article.
Asia is expected to lead the world in eVTOL adoption along with North America, Europe and Australia. To provide insight into how certification of eVTOLs is being rolled out in China and how industrial operations are taking off there, experts from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and other organizations discussed six important things to know about China’s eVTOL certification plans -Planes should know .
1. The CAAC will begin certifying automated/remotely operated eVTOLs prior to piloting.
The first reason why CAAC is taking this approach, says an unnamed CAAC expert, “is to implement key strategies such as the digital economy, smart transportation, and smart civil aviation. The second is to support innovation and research into unmanned aerial vehicles [UAV] certification, and the third is to meet the real needs of industrial development.”
Liu pointed out that there is immense potential for deploying eVTOLs and UAVs for cargo in China, as it is a large country with enormous transportation requirements. “As a large potential market, logistics will drive eVTOL OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] optimize their solutions for cargo eVTOL/UAV and test the new ATM/UTM [air traffic management/unmanned aircraft systems traffic management] Systems to mature hardware infrastructure and digital infrastructure,” he said.
Another CAAC expert also sees the importance of logistics for the Chinese economy as the reason why CAAC initially focuses on the certification of automated/remote-controlled eVTOLs. “Currently, autonomous trucks, buses, small vehicles, as well as autonomous drones and eVTOLs are very popular in China,” he said.
He believes that “air transportation will first focus on the islands, mountains and remote areas to increase transportation efficiency. And that also brings more safety by avoiding overflying the cities.”
2. There are many companies in China developing autonomously flying/remotely 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 companies such as the major aerospace and large aircraft OEMs, startup companies such as EHang, AutoFlight, etc., and large logistics companies such as Meituan, SF Express, JD.com, etc.”
Among them are automotive companies like Xiaopeng and Geely.
Liu added that EHang, with its EH216-S model, is the only company to have developed an automated/remotely operated eVTOL for passengers from day one.
“The other OEMs prefer to deliver piloted passenger eVTOLs first,” he said, “and look at automated/remotely operated passenger eVTOLs in the future.”
3. There is no set timeline for CAAC certification of automated/remotely operated eVTOLs
Professor Yi Yu of the Civil Aviation Management Institute of China (CAMIC) stated that certification for automated/remotely piloted eVTOLs is “in full swing” according to public information.
“The special conditions for the EHang EH216-S unmanned aircraft system have been announced,” he said, “but there is no specific timeline for the release.” Yu added that there is no public information showing that CAAC accepts airworthiness certification applications received from piloted eVTOLs.
Regarding the deadlines for automated and remote certification, an unnamed CAAC expert said: “CAAC takes civil aviation safety management seriously. The automated/remotely operated eVTOL applications will be implemented according to the standard airworthiness certificate, but the candidate’s capability is still far from the expectation. Whether the certificate can be issued at the end of 2022 depends on the performance of the applicant.”
dr Zhipeng Hao of the China Academy of Civil Aviation Science and Technology (CAST) added that “the duration of the certification depends on a variety of factors such as the applicant’s maturity in demonstrating compliance, etc. Different certification projects have different achievements in relation on the above factors, and the corresponding project review time is also different.”
4. China has several strengths in developing eVTOL industry
An unnamed CAAC expert noted that going forward, China has three advantages that can be leveraged in the development and R&D of its eVTOL industry. These are the existing industry and supply chain for light and small UAVs, secondary development and optimization capabilities for software and hardware, and the massive data produced by the UAV market.
Liu added, “China is more open and flexible. The speed of eVTOL and UAV development is very fast here. That’s because the industrial cluster advantage here is better than anywhere else in the world, and the talent pool is vast 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 deployment of eVTOLs in China, but Liu said special missions like firefighting will also be among the first deployments.
Passenger flights for inter-city travel will follow thereafter, as this will require eVTOLs to have full airworthiness certification in China, which will take longer than certification of eVTOLs for cargo transport. Liu believes eVTOL flights in isolated low-altitude airspace will take the lead in the passenger use case.
“Long-term Urban air mobility and regional flights are both very large passenger markets,” he said. “Traffic congestion is a big problem in China’s big cities, so UAM offers a good solution that will create a new lifestyle. Also, China is a country with many mountains, so regional flights with eVTOL will save a lot of time without incurring huge infrastructure costs.”
An unnamed CAAC expert believes that regional flights will be the early market for passenger eVTOLs, but in 10 or 15 years UAM will be mainstream.
6. The infrastructure of the eVTOL industry in China is currently mainly industry-based
Currently, eVTOL infrastructure in China is being built by eVTOL OEMs or leased to the existing airports, an unnamed CAAC expert explained. “There were also some local governments that built special runways or even airports for large-scale UAV test flights [but not eVTOL]’ said the expert. Currently, there is no professional eVTOL infrastructure construction company in China.
The CAAC expert added that the main infrastructure that personally saw that the first main application of eVTOLs in China is cargo logistics, “is a digital operations ecosystem, including but not limited to air routes, communications navigation monitoring, cloud computing, network communications, Vertiports for automated vertical takeoff and landing etc.”
Liu noted that in China, as elsewhere, the hardware infrastructure and digital infrastructure for eVTOLs will each support each other’s growth. He added that China’s automotive OEMs such as Geely, Volkswagen and Xiaopeng are contributing their expertise to the development of the eVTOL industry, such as battery charging and other hardware infrastructure issues.
He pointed out that the fully autonomous eVTOL relies heavily on digital infrastructure, which is built and operated in China by a state-owned company and is open to public use.
Currently, a standard system for UAV landing pads, as explained in public information, is being developed by the CAAC Aircraft Airworthiness Certification Division and the Air Traffic Management Bureau.
“The Airport Association and the Navigation Association are actively conducting the related work and organizing the research on ‘Construction Specifications for Light and Small UAV Logistics Landing Sites,’ respectively,” he said. “And for the operation they develop ‘Technical specifications for the airfield of civil vertical take-off and landing airports’. These sets of UAV specifications will provide specific roadmaps for building and operating vertiports in China.”
And like everywhere else in the world, China’s power grid capacity needs to be increased for eVTOLs and other electric vehicles to take off, but Liu is optimistic. “We’ll make it,” he said.