The number of electric VTOL designs in China is growing rapidly with significant funding.
Chinese companies are no strangers to the eVTOL sector. Guangzhou-based EHang unveiled its electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) EH184 in January 2016 and began making passenger flights soon after (see “How EHang Built an eVTOL for the World,” Vertiflite, July/Aug 2020).
The pace of eVTOL investment in China accelerated after several eVTOL startups from the US and Europe went public consecutively in a short period of time (see “Turning Point,” Vertiflite, July/Aug 2021). In the past months, three Chinese eVTOL startups have unveiled their designs after successfully securing seed investments. With its young and fast-growing middle-class of city dwellers and a completely self-contained supply chain, China is a promising market for technology products like eVTOL aircraft.
The following are some major Chinese eVTOL companies worthy of attention, including several that were unveiled at the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai on Sept. 28 to Oct. 3. Note that the companies listed here are all developing passenger-carrying eVTOL models with the intention to be type certified and mass produced. Smaller eVTOL drones for cargo-carrying, monitoring and surveillance applications are not included.
EHang is inarguably the foremost Chinese eVTOL company. It became the world’s first eVTOL company to go public when it listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange in December 2019. EHang has produced four passenger-carrying eVTOL models — the EH184 prototype and EH116 production version, EH216 and VT30 — and cargo derivatives. The EH184/EH116 and EH216 are one- and two-seat multicopters, respectively, while the latest VT30 is a two-seat, lift-plus-cruise configuration with wings.
According to the published data in its annual report, EHang is likely the eVTOL company with the most deliveries in series production in the world, claiming 134 units shipped by the end of 2020. It has been conducting trial flights with passengers on board in multiple locations in China.
However, EHang also has faced more criticism than many of its peers, particularly because it is a publicly-traded company. There have been allegations about the product quality, sales and certification of EHang’s eVTOL products, as exemplified by a damning Wolfpack Research report in February 2021. The reality might only be revealed when EHang actually obtains a type certificate and puts its eVTOL in day-to-day commercial operations carrying paying passengers.
As a pioneer of electric-powered aviation, AutoFlight has a long list of electric aircraft projects under its belt. The founder of the company, Tian Yu, started the Yuneec consumer multicopter drone company in 1999, which used to be a strong competitor of DJI. Yu is a well-known veteran of the passenger-carrying electric aviation industry — he began designing and producing electric airplanes over a decade ago. These include the two-seat ultralight E430, which obtained a flight permit from the DULV — the ultralight aircraft regulatory entity in Germany — in 2018, and won him the Lindbergh Foundation’s LEAP award for electric aviation. However, all of his previous passenger-carrying electric aircraft are fixed-wing designs.
Tian founded AutoFlight in Shanghai in 2016 to work on larger eVTOL for transporting cargo and passengers. In a static display at e-Flight-Expo of AERO Friedrichshafen in Germany in 2019, AutoFlight unveiled the two-seat eVTOL V600 prototype with separate lift and cruise motors. The company unveiled a 880-lb (400 kg) cargo delivery eVTOL called the V400 “Albatross” with a 220-lb (100-kg) payload capacity in September 2020, and the V1500M four-seat eVTOL prototype at Airshow China in Zuhai during 2021. V1500M is the largest eVTOL model developed by AutoFlight, with a maximum takeoff weight of 3,300 lb (1,500 kg), a 108-kt (200-km/h) cruising speed and 135-nm (250-km) range.
XPeng HT Aero
This company drew a lot of attention last year when XPeng Motors founder He Xiaopeng announced plans to invest in Huitian (previously referred to as “HeiTech”), securing a controlling stake in the eVTOL startup and adding XPeng’s name to the company. XPeng Motors — which is listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange and has a market capitalization of about $35B — is among the largest and most promising electric car companies in China, having already produced more than 100,000 electric vehicles.
XPeng’s acquisition of Huitian, a small eVTOL startup, was a clear indicator of the strong momentum of eVTOL in the automotive industry, a fact illustrated by similar investments by other car companies such as Mercedes, Toyota, Porsche, Hyundai and Geely. Although the extent of XPeng’s ambition for vertical mobility remains unclear, the acquisition brought the capital and expertise in electrical product development, autonomous software and mass production to the eVTOL industry in China.
Zhao Deli began development in 2013 and founded Huitian in Guangdong province with the goal of developing a single-seat multicopter eVTOL. The first prototype aircraft made a successful test flight in 2018 (see “Electric VTOL News,” Vertiflite, Sept/Oct 2020). Prior to Huitian’s acquisition by XPeng Motor, Zhao made numerous flights in public and upgraded several times, including two two-seat prototypes.
On Oct. 19, XPeng announced it had raised more than $500M in Series A capital funding for its subsidiary, which it now referred to as “HT Aero.” The funding round is led by IDG Capital, 5Y Capital and XPeng, with participation by a consortium of other investors, including Sequoia China, Eastern Bell Capital, GGV Capital, GL Ventures and Yunfeng Capital.
Deli Zhao, now president of HT Aero, stated, “Our next-generation model will be a fully integrated flying vehicle and automobile, designed for both low-altitude air travel and road driving. We are planning for an official roll-out in 2024.”
XPeng said its subsidiary “has developed five generations of intelligent electric-powered manned flying vehicles” and had “accumulated 15,000 safe manned flights.”
Calling itself “Asia’s largest flying vehicle startup,” HT Aero now has 500 employees. Headquartered in Guangzhou, the subsidiary has research and development (R&D) centers and laboratories in Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai and Silicon Valley. Flight tests and compliance verification flights are conducted in Panyu, Guangzhou.
Geely’s Terrafugia and Aerofugia
When Geely Group, one of the largest private automobile companies in China — and owner of multiple Western car brands, including Volvo, Lotus and The London Taxi Company — acquired the Woburn, Massachusetts-based Terrafugia flying car company in November 2017, it was big news in both the aviation and automobile industries. It was the first major deal in aviation by a Chinese automobile company. At the time, Terrafugia had only designed and produced prototypes of the TF-1 Transition “flying car,” capable of driving on the road and taking off from an airport, as well as a concept for a “TF-X” roadable eVTOL with stowing, folding tiltpropellers. After the acquisition, the company studied more conventional eVTOL concepts for passenger and cargo transportation, dubbed the TF-2.
Geely then created its own design team in China and unveiled a two-seat eVTOL design with compound configuration called then TF-2A, flying a sub-scale model in December 2019 (see “Electric VTOL News,” Vertiflite, March/April 2020).
Now, Geely has announced that it will work with an eVTOL partner instead of (or perhaps in addition to) developing an in-house eVTOL design. In late 2019, Geely led a Series C financing round of $55M into German eVTOL company Volocopter (Geely also owns nearly 10% of Daimler, which had previously invested in Volocopter). In 2020, Geely acquired an industrial drone company in China and consolidated all of its aviation projects into a new company called Aerofugia.
In April, Geely announced it planned a joint venture between Aerofugia and Volocopter, based in Chengdu, China. This was finalized in September, along with an order of 150 eVTOL aircraft from the German company. Geely plans to operate these eVTOL in China through this joint venture called Volocopter Chengdu.
TCab’s name — a combination of “time” and “cab” — illustrates the company’s eVTOL mission of reducing travel time. The company was founded in Shanghai in 2020 by a number of veterans of the traditional aviation and eVTOL industries. Founder and CEO Hwang Yongwei once presided over the Geely/Terrafugia eVTOL project in China and previously held positions in airworthiness and engineering at Airbus China. Co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer Jiang Jun served as the Senior Vice President at AutoFlight and was deeply involved in the product planning and market development.
After obtaining seed investments of nearly $10M earlier this year, TCab is developing its five-seat E20 eVTOL and plans to fly a sub-scale model of the aircraft within the year. The design has six propulsion units: four tilt for vertical takeoff and cruise, while two are in a fixed position for vertical takeoff only.
The company was founded in Shanghai in June 2021 by a group of aviation veterans from COMAC — the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, Ltd., the Chinese equivalent of Boeing and Airbus — and the Chinese subsidiaries of Airbus, GE, Honeywell and Rockwell Collins. The company is led by CEO Ming Dong and has secured a seed fund of several million dollars. The company is developing a five-seat, lift-plus-cruise eVTOL aircraft called the VT-25. The company flew a one-third, sub-scale model in September.
MuYu Aero Technology Co. was founded in Wuxi city near Shanghai and in a surprise announcement in September 2021, the company published a video clip of the tethered flight of a full-size, four-seat eVTOL prototype. The prototype has eight propellers for lift and four separate propellers for cruise. With a 2,920-lb (1,280-kg) maximum takeoff weight, it is one of the largest eVTOL currently flying in China. The company has a strong background in drone development and production, and a diversified portfolio of passenger-carrying aircraft projects, including an amphibian and a flying car with roadable capability.
This is one of the latest eVTOL companies emerging in China and it is also one of the most controversial designs. As of this writing, there is nothing more than a conceptual design called the Pantala “Concept H” or the “H1” and a rendered video. According to the conceptual design, Pantuo’s H1 will employ a tilt-wing/canard configuration combined with multiple ducted fans on both wings, a configuration reminiscent of Lilium. However, Pantuo claims that their design differs from Lilium in that both wings fully tilt in the H1 design (versus just the flaps with the Lilium Jet), as well as a considerable difference in the size of the ducted fans — two characteristics that would make the flight control very different. The founding team is comprised of members with experiences in business jet flight control design, so it will be interesting to see what Pantuo will bring up beyond the conceptual stage.
Besides the projects mentioned above with a fair amount of investment, there are many more varieties of eVTOL projects in China — both in the private and public sectors. Even the national incumbents are joining the game. The Beijing- and Shanghai-based research institutes of the state-owned aviation group COMAC have revealed eVTOL projects (see “Electric VTOL News,” Vertiflite, March/April 2021). The Beijing institute has produced a prototype with separate lift and cruise propellers that can carry one person, while the Shanghai institute has test flown a subscale model of their eVTOL design, which has similar configuration. Whether these two projects will seek commercial application beyond the current research status remains to be seen.
Other unusual design concepts include EFC’s two-seat eVTOL in the form of a flying saucer intended for theme park and recreational use, the minimalist single-seat design with only two tilting pairs of propellers from Tianjin Banlan Aviation Technology Company, and several eVTOL designs still in the very early conceptual stage. Chinese company Wenzhou Duofu Aviation Industry Group Co. (aka “Doof”) presented a single-seat, roadable helicopter called “Pegasus” at Airshow China. The design uses a combustion engine-powered ultralight helicopter for flight with an electric-powered automobile chassis for road use.
Of course — like any innovative product evolution — for every company that is successfully securing investment, there are many more projects struggling to survive. Many grassroots eVTOL projects are now sprouting up in China, and there is a high chance that we will see more eVTOL aircraft from China in the future.
About the Author
Xin Gou is the Vice President of Flying Pages GmbH. He is the founder of the e-Flight-Expo running in Friedrichshafen, Germany since 2009, as well as one of the founders of the annual e-Flight-Forum in China, beginning in 2017. He has been a private pilot since 2004 and a dreamer of flying for much longer.
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