China’s EHang Inc., in partnership with Austria’s FACC AG (formerly Fischer Advanced Composite Components), a unit of Chinese state-owned aerospace group Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) since 2009, is seeking rapid certification of its Ehang 216 autonomous aerial vehicle (AAV) in Austria, hoping for mass production and flights next year as journalists, executives and politicians were offered rides in Vienna at a press event.
The Ehang 216, last year’s successor to the single-passenger Ehang 184 model unveiled three years ago, is a 16-rotor wingless two-passenger drone controlled from a ground station and designed to fly at low altitudes in so-called Class G airspace. It is an Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) craft powered by batteries, said to have a range of 35km, a top speed of 130km/h, 30 minutes of flight time, and full recharge in 1 hour. Passengers press buttons on a tablet screen to choose a destination and initiate takeoff; the rest is handled from the ground as flights run along predefined air corridors. The craft has flown a number of times in China, and Ehang executives say thousands of orders there are awaiting certification and mass production. Noise level is said to be less than that of a helicopter. Demonstration flights have been done in Qatar and the Netherlands. The company says safety is assured by multiple levels of systems redundancy and calculates accident risk at 10-9 [video], superior to helicopters and on par with commercial airliners. However, some analysts have criticized the open-rotor design of the Ehang 216, wondering if boarding passengers might injure themselves or damage the composite-material blades.
In a series of online videos published last week from Vienna, FACC and Ehang executives outlined the latter’s strategy for Europe: to partner with a country which may help develop test flight sites, accelerate airworthiness certification, integrate unmanned flight corridors into its national airspace system, and facilitate mass production. Ehang believes Austria fits the bill; it also has local partners in Norway and is interested in the Netherlands. In February, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) named Ehang as one of five pilot manufacturers on a path to unmanned certification this year.
On April 4, as part of a media initiative with television broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1 PULS 4 called the Urban Air Mobility Project, EHang flew executives and journalists for short vertical rides in Vienna’s Generali Arena stadium. Norbert Hofer, Austria’s Minister for Transport, Innovation and Technology, was an enthusiastic passenger. Reuters and Agence France Presse published dispatches about the event. Co-sponsor ProSiebenSat.1 has organized a digital East meets West festival in Vienna called 4GAMECHANGERS from April 9-11; the public will be offered rides in the Ehang 216 for the first time.
FACC is a subcontractor to the world’s major aircraft manufacturers and in 2010, assisted Russia’s Sukhoi in obtaining European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) approval for the SSJ100 jet.
One year ago, a major delegation of 250 Austrian politicians and business leaders visited China. The Austrian Embassy and the Austrian Economic Chamber went to Ehang and subsequently facilitated contacts with FACC; the two countries’ partnership was announced last November in Guangzhou. The companies said then:
EHang is the inventor and expert for all questions relating to autonomous air mobility, particularly with regard to connectivity and software solutions. FACC supports high-tech hardware with development, certification, production and worldwide aftermarket services. FACC and EHang will work closely with industry partners, politicians and aviation authorities to implement the mobility solutions in airspace. It is also planned, in consultation with the authorities, to accelerate the design of the framework conditions and regulations for individual air mobility and, subsequently, the creation of a test field in Austria.
On April 1, Reuters reported that Ehang’s initial public offering (IPO) in the US would be delayed, stating that $200 million in private funding would be sought instead.
Chinese investment in Europe is viewed with suspicion by some politicians and analysts. There has been concern that Huawei Technologies Co. 5G backbone infrastructure could present a security risk, and that China’s Belt and Road Initiative investments (most recently in Trieste, Italy) could compromise Europe’s integrity and unity. One month ago, the European Commission’s Foreign Affairs department even published a policy paper (EU-China — A strategic outlook) which states:
There is a growing appreciation in Europe that the balance of challenges and opportunities presented by China has shifted. In the last decade, China’s economic power and political influence have grown with unprecedented scale and speed, reflecting its ambitions to become a leading global power… Given the magnitude of our trade and investment links, it is important to develop a more balanced and reciprocal economic relationship… It is necessary to identify how the EU could appropriately deal with the distortive effects of foreign state ownership and state financing of foreign companies on the EU internal market… The new Regulation establishing a framework for screening foreign direct investment will enter into force in April 2019 and fully apply from November 2020. It will provide a powerful instrument to detect and raise awareness of foreign investment in critical assets, technologies and infrastructure. It will further allow identifying collectively and addressing security and public order threats posed by acquisitions in sensitive sectors.
Before Ehang can automate c-drone or air taxi flights in Austria, an Unmanned aircraft Traffic Management (UTM) system, integrated with Austria’s Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) Austro Control must be implemented. In December 2017, Belgium’s Unifly partnered with Austro Control for a smartphone app showing restricted airspace to assist drone pilots in visual line of sight (VLOS) flights.