How EHang Built an eVTOL for the World
Vertiflite asked EHang’s co-founder how the company developed its eVTOL models, and learned about the startup’s culture, mission and history.
By Nicolas Zart
EHang is a unique story of how a Chinese aviation startup developed electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft on its own. Away from the western urban air mobility (UAM) buzz, EHang today has six models of its manned and unmanned Autonomous Aerial Vehicle (AAV) designs, as well as an ecosystem for managing its aircraft. (Above: In May, EHang received the world’s first approval to conduct a pilot program for unmanned air logistics delivery. All photos via EHang.)
Co-founder Yifang (Derrick) Xiong has been the director and chief marketing officer since the company’s inception. He provided his insights for this article, the first major update for Vertiflite in three years (“Air Mobility Bonanza Beckons Electric VTOL Developers,” Vertiflite, March/April 2017).
UAM as the Foundation for EHang
EHang is a unique aviation startup. It is China’s only company to date developing both manned and unmanned electric aircraft, and it developed its eVTOL technology in a bubble of sorts. Its chairman Huazhi Hu graduated from Tsinghua University with a computer science degree in 1997 and started an IT company soon after. This down-to-earth engineer became one of the first Chinese entrepreneurs in the 1990s, when the country was making its economic transition.
Hu’s expertise in hardware and software made him a perfect fit for the emergency control system of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, where he designed its command control system, which oversaw helicopters, police, ambulance, cars, pilots and aviation fans. He then managed the Shanghai World, the command and control platform of Beijing’s 999 emergency rescue center, and the Guangdong provincial emergency rescue call centers.
By 2012, Hu’s aviation passion brought him into the new field of drones. Around then, smartphone companies were booming along with the Chinese economy. It created today’s global electronics leaders, Huawei and Xiaomi, among others.
Still, he noticed aviation accidents were a daily global reality. This pushed him to focus on hardware, developing sensors, automation and robotization for drones. At that time, DJI (Shenzhen Da-Jiang Innovations Sciences and Technologies, Ltd.) was an up-and-coming drone company. It had introduced a quadcopter and was beginning a mass-market drone industry. This pushed Hu to work on safer autonomous drone technology. Back then, everything relied on 2G communications, including drones.
EHang established itself in the Guangzhou and Shenzhen area in the country’s biggest supply chain region. Hu’s command center expertise became increasingly advantageous as he developed a camera autonomous drone using then brand-new 3G technology.
How EHang Created an eVTOL Company in China
Xiong received his bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronic engineering in 2012 from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and a master of management degree in 2013 from Duke University in North Carolina, USA. He met Hu in February 2013.
Xiong recognized how hardware was changing the world but felt software and the internet of things (IoT) were key to running everything efficiently. Xiong said he was impressed seeing Hu fly a drone using his smartphone. Both of these entrepreneurs would eventually play a crucial role in China’s airspace and the global eVTOL movement. They set out to design AAVs on their own. This is how EHang Holdings Limited was founded in December 2014.
EHang raised its first $1M from investors in June 2015. An Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign raised a further $850,000 that November, and another $10M was raised a few months after. All of these investments happened in eight months. The following year, EHang continued its stratospheric rise and secured $42M. Xiong made the point that raising capital in China is very different from in Western countries. Reputation is more important in China than it is in the West, he said, and reputation is on the line, much more so than in the West.
EHang’s strategy was founded on three business pillars: UAM with passenger transportation and logistics, smart city management, and aerial media. Xiong said EHang was created with the idea of moving humans but initially the company was using cameras on drones to test the business model. Today, it has a full array of manned and unmanned eVTOL aircraft and support systems, which include training, maintenance and command-and-control systems with flight monitoring.
Although primarily interested in passenger drones, Hu and Xiong initiated development of smaller commercial drones in parallel.
Called “the world’s easiest drone to fly,” EHang’s Ghost Aerial 1.0 Drone was one of the first that could be fully controlled via a smartphone (iPhone or Android). Weighing 22.9 oz (650 g) and with a wingspan of 14.5 inches (370 mm), the Ghost Drone was unique in that it was a quadcopter that used four underslung propellers. It had a 20-minute endurance carrying a GoPro camera and a 2-D gimbal, or 30 minutes without them. It cost $600 when it debuted in 2016.
The Ghost Drone 2.0 is an upgraded version of the original Ghost. With roughly 25 minutes of flight time and a one-kilometer (0.6-mile) range, it can reach speeds of up to 43 mph (70 km/h). It includes a 4K camera with a set of first-person view (FPV) goggles.
With the smaller drones, EHang is perhaps best known for its formation flights, replacing the camera on the Ghost with a large glowing orb. The company set a Guinness World Record in April 2018 for the largest drone display with 1,374 drones simultaneously flying in Xian. They flew for more than 13 minutes and the images stretched over more than a kilometer span.
EHang uses highly accurate centimeter-level positioning, enabled by the real-time kinematic (RTK) GPS technology, to prevent collisions even when two drones come as close as 2 inches (5 cm) apart. EHang calls it a flyable media, with each drone acting as a variable-color pixel to create dynamic images. It’s a testament to the technologically varied application of EHang’s eVTOL and drone development.
Before its Ghost drones had gained attention, EHang exploded onto the world stage on Jan. 7, 2016, when it unveiled its model 184 AAV at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada. The model name was derived from the AAV’s one seat, eight propellers and four arms.
EHang announced in May that it had signed a teaming agreement with the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS) and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) to put the drone through testing via the state’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) designated unmanned aircraft system (UAS) test site.
In May 2016, United Therapeutics Corporation’s subsidiary, Lung Biotechnology (see Electric VTOL for Organs on Demand, Vertiflite, March/April 2019), announced a collaboration with EHang to develop an evolved version of the 184 called the Manufactured Organ Transport Helicopter (MOTH). The two companies agreed to work together for 15 years to deliver as many as 1,000 MOTH units for automated organ deliveries. Lung Biotechnology invested $10M in December 2016 and United Therapeutics invested another $7M in February 2019 — both as Series C preferred shares. (Dragon Chariot Limited was the other Series C investor, with a total of $5M in 2017.)
In February 2017, EHang said it had made more than 100 manned flights and announced that it would be demonstrating its 184 in Dubai for that city’s Road & Transportation Agency (RTA); the Emirate announced the audacious plan to begin the first electric air taxi services that July. Volocopter was also funded by RTA for demonstration flights with its VC200 later that year. This effort was in support of a “smart city” initiative by the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, striving towards 25% of all passenger trips to be made in driverless vehicles by 2030.
By this time, EHang had conducted flight testing in China in 2015–2017, in the US (Nevada) in 2016–2017 and UAE (Dubai) in 2017.
The following February, the company revealed in a video its eight-arm, 16-propeller models — the single-seat 116 and two-seat 216 AAVs — though the 216 designation wasn’t revealed until that June and the 116 name was not revealed until October 2019 (see below). EHang later reported, “In March 2018, we delivered a unit of our dual-seat EHang 216 to a customer. We believe this was the world’s first delivery of a passenger-grade AAV.”
Xiong announced at a VFS-moderated event in June 2018 that by that time a total of “30 to 40” AAVs had been built and that the 216 had already made more than 1,000 manned flights. He also described that EHang had autonomously flown Dutch Prince Pieter Christiaan inside the Amsterdam Arena in April and had conducted a flight demonstration in front of the royal family of Denmark in June.
EHang signed a memorandum of understanding with the city of Lyon, France, in November 2018 to establish its first European research center. That same month, the company also entered into a strategic partnership with Austrian aerospace group FACC. EHang and FACC flew media representatives on demonstration flights in the two-seat AAV within the Generali Arena in Vienna, Austria, on April 2019.
EHang AAV Aircraft
The following are descriptions of EHang’s aircraft. More information on these three passenger-carrying drones is available at www.eVTOL.news.
The EHang 184 was the first EHang prototype. It was a proof of concept. EHang’s naming convention meant that the model 184 is a one-passenger aircraft with eight propellers on four arms. This 184 AAV was conceived of by Huazhi Hu in late 2012. The EHang 216 followed the 184, which was retired and replaced with the modernized EHang 116.
This was the second EHang and was first revealed in February 2018. Based on the EHang 184, the 216 sports eight arms instead of four and twice as many propellers. This allows it to carry two passengers. The 16 independent propellers and 16 independent motors mounted on eight arms give it additional redundancy. The company announced in June 2018 that the “EHang 184 AAV achieves a series of manned flight tests with up to 40 persons,” including EHang CEO Hu onboard. In June 2018, Xiong said they had already built and flown 30–40 demonstrator aircraft.
In February 2018, EHang also revealed a single-passenger EHang 116 eVTOL production version aircraft with the same propulsion scheme. With a cruising speed of 100 km/h (62 mph) and a maximum flight time of 19 minutes, the one-passenger eVTOL multicopter is fully autonomous. It can carry a payload of 309 lb (140 kg) to a maximum distance of 19 miles (31 km).
EHang 116L Logistics AAV
With a propulsion system based on the model 116, the EHang 116L relies on eight arms and 16 coaxial propellers with a core system redundancy backup. The EHang 116L is designed to fly a payload of more than 485 lb (220 kg) short distances of less than 20 miles (32 km). It has a maximum take-off weight of 1,325 lb (600 kg) and typical cruising speed of 60 mph (100 km/h).
EHang FALCON Delivery Drone
Part of EHang’s “Smart City Management,” the carbon fiber molding uses four arms and eight coaxial propellers. The Falcon delivery drone uses dual sensors with redundant dual-GPS. It has the company’s one-button automated return after disconnection and or landing on low power. Maximum take-off weight is 37.5 lb (17 kg).
EHang GD2.0 Logistics Drone
The GD2.0 Logistics Drone is a 4G module for ultralong distance control. The streamlined cabin is designed for UAM express delivery service and as a last-mile delivery aircraft. It uses the company’s one button to realize automatic take-off, cruise, landing and aerial delivery systems. Its maximum take-off weight is 3 lb (1.4 kg).
EHang worked closely with the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) from the beginning. In January 2019, the Airworthiness Department of CAAC issued its “Guidance on UAV Airworthiness Certification based on Operational Risks,” aimed at establishing a risk-based UAV airworthiness management system including for transporting cargo, inspecting powerlines and carrying passengers.
The company announced that it had “obtained written approval issued by the CAAC for trial flights in certain locations in China for the purpose of evaluating their airworthiness and formulating industry standards on airworthiness of passenger-grade AAVs. However, we are not allowed to engage in commercial operation or pilot operation of our passenger-grade AAVs merely with this approval.”
EHang launched its initial public offering (IPO) and on Dec. 12, 2019, was publicly listed on the Nasdaq Global Market as “EH.” Xiong proudly said EHang beat many others to the stock market by years, as the “world’s first publicly traded UAM company.” As of Oct. 30, according to the company’s filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), EHang had delivered 38 “passenger-grade” AAVs to customers “for testing, training, and demonstration purposes and developed two command-and-control centers for smart city management.”
Making further history, EHang conducted its first US trial flight of the (unmanned) EHang 216 with the North Carolina Transportation Summit hosted by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) on Jan. 8–9, 2020. This event was the first public free flight of an autonomous electric VTOL aircraft in North America. This is also the first time a Chinese aircraft manufacturer has received a flight approval from the FAA. EHang is now working to secure FAA approval for passenger trial flights.
In March, EHang secured an operational flight permit to fly in Norway. Separately, the company signed agreements with the cities of Seville and Llíria in Spain as its third and fourth UAM pilot cities, after Linz in Austria and Guangzhou in China.
EHang also developed “E-Ports” for its AAV where flights can be managed and coordinated. These vertipads rely on an automated storage system with rail-guided carriers that bring the aircraft to storage or for maintenance and to charging stations. EHang’s E-Ports are designed for point-to-point or urban routes. The company said the modular system can be installed anywhere — on rooftops or by the water — and act as a wider UAM control center, coordinating flight management.
The company announced its intention in April to build the world’s first AAV terminal in the City of Hezhou in Guangxi Province to accelerate the commercialization of its aircraft for tourism. The 26,900 ft2 (2,500 m2) E-port will hold up to 20 EHang 216 AAVs and have four roof landing pads. Its three floors will house a reception hall, passenger waiting area, and departures/arrivals zone. EHang hopes to complete the terminal by the end of the year.
EHang has now also entered a strategic partnership to combine its UAM services with Shenzen-listed tourism company LN Holdings’ hotel/tourism business. As part of this agreement, the companies will transform the LN Garden Hotel in Guangzhou into the world’s first UAM-themed hotel by using AAVs for various logistical and entertainment purposes. The move will also promote EHang’s 216 AAVs for other commercial uses, while satisfying an agreement to develop Guangzhou as China’s first UAM pilot city.
Finally, on May 27, EHang announced that the CAAC had granted the company commercial operations approval to use its AAVs for air logistics under a pilot program. Thus, EHang became “the world’s first AAV company approved by a national aviation authority to carry out commercial [trial] operation for the category of 150 kg [330 lb] plus heavy-lift air logistics uses.”
This approval was granted based on the Pilot Operation Rules (Interim) for Specific Unmanned Aircraft promulgated by the CAAC in February 2019 for different categories of specific unmanned aircraft including passenger-grade AAVs. It is a pioneering regulation for which the CAAC applied the Specific Operation Risk Assessment (SORA) framework of the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking of Unmanned Systems (JARUS), a group of experts from the national aviation authorities of 61 countries, including China and the US, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (EUROCONTROL).
With this approval, trial air logistics service using the EHang 216 will be carried out to transport cargo between ground and hilltop and between shore and islands at a customer site in Taizhou. It is also intended to be gradually expanded to other sites in China as it accumulates operational data and experience.
EHang Tomorrow and Beyond
Today, EHang has made more than 2,000 flights in China, Europe, Qatar, UAE and the US.
In its end-of-the-year financial report for 2019, released on March 24, EHang reported that it had sold 60 EHang 216s and one single-seat EHang 116 to customers in Asia, Europe and North America. The company said they can be flown for tourism, disaster relief and general transportation. Asked about EHang’s future, Xiong said they are focusing on China but also keeping the larger global AAV market in sight.
The company published a white paper on UAM systems in January, focusing on the design, application, regulations and commercialization of AAVs (see www.ehang.com/uam).
Asked about whether they would design electric conventional takeoff and landing (eCTOL) aircraft, Xiong said the idea is appealing but that EHang was focused on developing a production ramp-up as quickly as possible. They settled on a 20-mile (32-km) range AAV aircraft. Xiong said EHang was demonstrating untethered flying tests in various weather conditions five years ago. EHang’s AAVs have 20 minutes of autonomous flight and can recharge in 45 minutes.
EHang is also trying to help deal with the novel coronavirus pandemic. In a demonstration, its 216 AAV successfully transported medical supplies from Hezhou Square to the Hezhou People’s Hospital, which are 2.5 miles (4 km) apart, landing on the 25-story rooftop of the hospital. The AAVs are also being considered for use for first responders, taking on the role of ambulance, fire and disaster relief.
Decades of research and hard work means this Chinese startup is the first on its domestic market today. Its recent approvals in Norway and Spain demonstrate its international growing footprint. EHang’s history is the stuff made of entrepreneurs rising to a prominent international UAM role. It developed on its own and is growing its presence internationally. The COVID-19 outbreak proved it can handle more roles than originally thought.
About the Author
Nicolas Zart has written on electric cars, autonomous cars, electric aircraft and other green mobility vehicles since 2007 for various outlets. A frequent contributor to Vertiflite, he also writes for Robb Report and Aviation International News.