In the eVTOL air taxi world, eHang is an outlier. Where most operations are painstakingly doing thousands of unmanned flight tests, eHang is merrily flying people around, including its own CEO and even members of the public – and in autonomous mode, no less – a stark contrast to nearly every other major company, which will start out as piloted services. Where others are dotting every i and crossing every t to ensure they can attain commercial certification in multiple markets, eHang is going into production before anyone’s got certification anywhere.
There’s a bit of a space race going on here, folks. The US in particular is not at all happy that it missed the boat on the consumer drone revolution and let China establish absolute dominance through its phenomenally successful DJI company.
Every new technology frontier is now seen as a matter of national security, thanks to China’s “unrestricted warfare” doctrine, in which all state assets, including technology products, are considered as strategic military assets. This concern underpins much of the kerfuffle around TikTok, the Belt and Road initiative, and Huawei’s 5G infrastructure, and it’s easy to see why the US military is uncomfortable about the idea of millions of DJI drones capable of broadcasting high-definition video being out in the wild if and when things kick off in a conflict.
Hence, if there are going to be eVTOL air taxis whizzing around above our cities, America wants them to be American ones, using American technology, that can’t be weaponized in some dystopian cyber warfare scenario. That’s the thinking behind Agility Prime, the US Air Force program that’s providing a lot of early funding and testing opportunities to American eVTOL companies.
But China appears to be deploying an interesting and unexpected trump card in the eVTOL race: it seems to be letting eHang get going on things much earlier than the rest of the world. Regular manned flights, full-scale production and autonomous flight seem years away for the West’s eVTOL leaders, but China can set its own agenda with domestic aviation laws, and eHang is taking full advantage of the leeway it’s been given as it works toward full Chinese certification.
So today we see video of what we believe to be the world’s first eVTOL air taxi production facility in operation: a 24,000-sq-ft (2,230-sq-m) manufacturing plant in Yunfu pounding out two-seat autonomous 216 multicopters and longer-range VT30 autonomous lift and cruise aircraft at an unspecified rate.
We see components being milled, carbon shells being laid, things going into giant pressure chambers, buttons being pushed, bodywork being painted, propulsion systems being assembled and tested. To a large extent, this video is more about investor relations than anything else, but it’s still pretty crazy to watch.
Will this accelerated timeframe give China the edge in the emerging UAV market? Well, it’ll certainly give it a wealth of data to work with, but eHang won’t be flying air taxis in Europe or America until they’re fully FAA/EASA certified, just like anyone else. So it’s an interesting little situation to keep an eye on.
Check out the video below.
EHang Yunfu Production Facility in Operation