China readies commercial VTOL air taxi services

The race is on to launch certified eVTOL transport. The Paris Olympics may be a factor.

For a decade after the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flight, inventors, dreamers and entrepreneurs operating out of barns and sheds all over the world built radical prototypes to turn aviation from a dangerous hobby into a practical proposition. Today, there’s a modern equivalent of that excitement in the electric vertical takeoff and landing space. The eVTOL industry has reached an important milestone, with the first commercial certification of a battery electric VTOL aircraft in China. This summer’s Paris Olympics is expected to feature regular eVTOL service between Paris area airports, contingent on European aviation authority certification, which is expected. If successful, this may open the floodgates to low altitude, urban air mobility in cities worldwide.

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Episode Transcript:

120 years ago, the Wright Brothers demonstrated controlled flight of a heavier-than-air vehicle, and it ignited a gold rush. For a decade, inventors, dreamers and entrepreneurs operating out of barns and sheds all over the world built radical prototypes to turn aviation from a dangerous hobby into a practical proposition.  

Today, there is a modern equivalent of that excitement in the electric vertical takeoff and landing space.  

The general technology for eVTOL air taxis has now been established: lithium-ion batteries powering electric motor-driven multiple fans in a distributed lift arrangement. The current state-of-the-art in air taxi technology is similar to that seen in mass production commercial drones, but scaled up into a form that can carry a lightweight carbon fibre capsule with two or more passengers. The inherent weight and energy density of lithium-ion batteries defines the mission profile.  

With flight duration measured in minutes, these vehicles will be used in urban and suburban point-to-point transportation missions, where charging infrastructure will be available at every stop. And the distributed lift methodology means a sea-change in aircraft control.  

 Unlike the conventional 3-axis control of fixed wing aircraft, or the cyclic and collective seen in helicopters, eVTOL aircraft will rely on differential speed control of the lift fans, combined with tilt mechanisms for hybrid designs. This means fly by wire control, and stability augmentation.  

VTOL flight control software, hardware redundancy and stability augmentation are known quantities, but the regulatory regime that has existed for a century for fixed wing aircraft, and 70 years for helicopters, isn’t mature. Jurisdictions that are early to commercial certification will offer their manufacturers a distinct advantage, as rules will be largely written around the technology of those first airframe builders.  

And the Chinese have taken the lead in commercial certification with the EHang EH216-S aircraft achieving the first Standard Airworthiness Certificate issued by the Civil Aviation Administration of China. The first use of the aircraft has been for commercial sightseeing flights in Guangzhou and Hefei.  

While fixed-base operations will provide valuable flight hours for statistical analysis, point-to-point air taxi operations have already been planned for the 2024 Paris Olympics, with Bruchsal and Germany-based Volocopter announcing that flight services between local airports have been approved by the French Civil Aviation Authority DGAC.  

This approval anticipates expected European Union aviation safety agency (EASA) approval this spring. The aircraft will be certified to operate at heights below 500m, and will carry a single pilot and one passenger. Additionally, Volocopter is collaborating with German medevac foundation ADAC Luftrettung for EMS rescue experiments in Germany late in the year.   

Both Chinese and European certifications will inaugurate short range, low altitude electric air taxi service, and will establish a statistical baseline for flight safety and dispatch reliability. Critical unknowns will be operating cost and profitability, the ability of flight training systems to deliver an adequate number of pilots ahead of full autonomy, and of course, consumer acceptance.  

 The Paris Olympics will be a very high-profile venue to demonstrate electric vertical takeoff capability, and safe operations there may become the start date for regular, commercial operations.  

The first scheduled airline began in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1914. 110 years later, commercial electric air taxi service is about to become reality. 


Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.