By Philip Butterworth-Hayes
The announcement on October 13 that the EHang EH216-S has obtained a type certificate from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) will have a profound impact on the global aviation industry.
The company plan for a rapid ramp-up in production and delivery – first to around 2,000 tourist hot spots in China and then to neighbouring nations in Asia.
This means that China will be introducing autonomous advanced and urban air mobility services before any eVTOLs have been certified in Europe and North America and ten to fifteen years before these regions plan for uncrewed versions of eVTOLs, on a trial basis.
While regulators in the West struggle to implement even first generation UAS traffic management (UTM) system for drones, EHang has developed and certified not just an autonomous aircraft but an entire AAM eco-system. The EHang Unmanned Aircraft Cloud System (UACS), which has also been certified by the CAAC, includes a traffic management system, flight plan processing, aircraft command and control, systems monitoring and flow-control functions, “enabling cluster management of multiple aircrafts within the same airspace, and ensuring safer and more reliable operations,” according to the company. The only element missing is a vertiport – but the company is working with several different vertiport operators to develop ground-handling and airspace integration operations, creating partnerships on a regional basis.
Unlike other eVTOL manufacturers, EHang can market this entire eco-system to countries and cities prepared to align their certification processes to that of the CAAC. This will give EHang (and Chinese industry, for other Chinese eVTOls are bound to follow in EHang’s wake) an extraordinary lead in this vast global market. It will mean EHang will be able to deliver affordable AAM services at a scale and pace beyond the reach of any competitors in the West. The EH216-S is small. But other, larger and longer range are on the way, starting with the EHang VT-30, which will take up to two passengers up to 300 km (186 miles) under completely autonomous control.
Fundamental to the success of the certification process has been the alignment between the CAAC with its low altitude economy and general aviation plan and China’s eVTOL and drone sectors. This will mean the CAAC is about to play a more significant global role, as China will be able to set the standards for autonomous passenger services for years to come, as it will have unique sources of operational data on which new rules and operating procedures for autonomous aviation will rely. EHang reports its EH216 has already been granted SAE AS9100D standard certification (Quality Management Systems -Requirements for Aviation, Space, and Defense Organizations), a standard which includes ISO 9001:2015.
A key element of this is the safety management system. According to EHang:
“The Fail-Safe safety system serves as a reliable guardian by equipping itself with multiple-redundant protection plans. The system can monitor each airborne device and acquire its operating status
and health condition, and then transmit the information back to the command-and-control system. In case of any abnormal condition, a smoothest route will be selected and executed based on the
preset algorithm logic to safely take the passenger to the destination.”
Many in Europe and North America are sceptical. The operational and business plans do not add up, they argue. The cabin size is too small and two hours to fully charge an EH216 is too long, they say. They worry about the safety and reliability cases. And the reality is that there are now three ways the EHang AAM programme will go: complete success and mass distribution around the world; a minor hiccup of two which slows the programme down but does not fundamentally detract from the company’s longer term business plans and a third way, where there are more serious incidents, which will introduce more significant delays and obstacles.
Paths one and two will also give Chinese aerospace technology a big lead in introducing autonomy into the commercial aviation market, again, many years ahead of their Western competitors. A new generation of autonomous small aircraft could quickly spring up, followed by new autonomous regional services (China’s Y12F twin-engine turboprop commuter aircraft was certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency in July this year) and then the biggest prize of all, large airliners.
But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves.
The certification of the EH216-S is a huge deal, for a number of reasons. The gut reaction of many in the West, among regulators and industry, will be to regard the programme as a uniquely Chinese experiment, without relevance to the crawl-walk-run development plans of their own domestic industries. But they will also know that the coordination of activity between industry and regulator which has resulted in the type certification of the EH-216-S, rather than the technology, is the key factor which has produced this milestone. Whatever happens next, there will be added pressure on aviation regulators in North America, Europe, Japan and Korea to work more closely together if they are to compete with China in the global AAM market.