Firms have high hopes for low-altitude biz

More efforts needed to improve rules, standards for safe operation of eVTOLs

By FAN FEIFEI | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-17 08:58
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Growers get training to use unmanned aerial vehicles to protect crops in Mengcheng county, Anhui province, in March. HU WEIGUO/FOR CHINA DAILY

China's low-altitude economy, which is regarded as a strategic emerging industry, is poised to see speedy growth in the coming years, fueled mainly by investments in related infrastructure construction, policy support from authorities and commercial applications in diverse scenarios like passenger transport, tourism and logistics, industry experts said.

They noted the country's emphasis on developing the low-altitude economy is conducive to bolstering urban industrial upgrades, fostering new economic growth drivers and alleviating urban traffic congestion, adding that the sector boasts huge market potential and promising development prospects.

However, more efforts should be made to improve the rules, standards and relevant regulatory policies regarding safe operation of unmanned aerial vehicles and other low-altitude flight activities, as well as accelerate the construction of ground takeoff and landing airports and airspace management systems, they added.

Although currently there is no official definition for the "low-altitude economy", it largely refers to a new economic space utilizing low-altitude airspace below 3,000 meters to carry out various airborne activities. These flight activities include a comprehensive range of undertakings focused on both manned and unmanned aerial vehicles, including aircraft manufacturing, low-altitude flight operations and integrated services.

The market scale of China's low-altitude economy reached 505.95 billion yuan ($69.9 billion) in 2023, up 33.8 percent year-on-year, and is expected to surpass 1 trillion yuan in 2026, according to a report released by market research firm CCID Consulting.

Revenue from the electric vertical takeoff and landing sector rose 77.3 percent year-on-year to 980 million yuan last year, the report said. This segment is expected to see wider commercial application in fields like aerial sightseeing and tourism in 2024.

The report estimates that the eVTOL sector will maintain rapid growth in the next few years, with the market scale hitting 9.5 billion yuan in 2026, fueled by the accelerated issuance of airworthiness certifications by authorities. The revenue of the country's civilian drone sector stood at 117.4 billion yuan last year, an increase of 32 percent year-on-year, it added.

Referred to as air taxis, eVTOLs don't require traditional airports or runways. Similar to helicopters, they take off vertically and transition into fixed-wing flight mode in the air, and offer a promising air traffic and sightseeing option while traversing China's congested big cities.

The low-altitude economy, which plays a key part in nurturing new quality productive forces and serves as a new growth engine, has been written into this year's Government Work Report for the first time.

Several provincial-level regions nationwide have unveiled plans to develop the low-altitude economy and build up related industrial clusters in their government work reports in 2024.

Chinese manufacturers of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, are ratcheting up resources to promote the development of the low-altitude economy and expand the application of drones in a wide range of sectors, such as manned transportation, aerial tourism, aerial logistics, agriculture, geological surveying and mapping, public security and even disaster relief.

EHang Holdings Ltd, a Chinese autonomous aerial vehicle tech firm, is stepping up efforts to bolster the commercial use of eVTOL aircraft in aerial sightseeing and tourism.

The company announced in early April that it had obtained a production certificate for its EH216-S passenger-carrying pilotless eVTOL aircraft. The certificate, issued by the Civil Aviation Administration of China, is the world's first production certificate granted in the global eVTOL industry, marking another significant step toward mass production of eVTOL aircraft and follow-up commercial operations.

Previously, the EH216-S had obtained the type certificate and the airworthiness certificate from the CAAC. With a length of 6.05 meters, a width of 5.73 meters and a height of 1.93 meters, the aircraft has a maximum flight range of 30 kilometers and a maximum speed of 130 kilometers per hour.

The low-altitude economy and related sectors present a significant market opportunity for urban air mobility development, and serve as a new engine for future growth in China, said Hu Huazhi, founder, chairman and CEO of EHang.

Hu said the company hopes to introduce safe and reliable pilotless eVTOL aircraft to the global market, thereby offering safe, autonomous and eco-friendly air mobility services to everyone.

EHang recently sold some of its EH216-S models via a livestreaming room on Alibaba Group's online marketplace Taobao. The Guangzhou, Guangdong province-based company has also inked strategic partnerships with some local governments to jointly create a low-altitude economy industry ecosystem.

The certified two-seater EH216-S has successfully completed its inaugural commercial flight demonstrations in Guangzhou and Hefei, Anhui province. The move signified another major milestone toward normalizing EH216-S flights for airborne sightseeing at local scenic spots.

China aims to establish a new development model for the general aviation industry characterized by high-end, intelligent and green features by 2030 and form a trillion-yuan-level market in general aviation equipment, according to a recent action plan issued by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and three other government departments.

By 2027, new-generation general aviation equipment with unmanned, electric and intelligent features will realize commercial application in urban air transportation, logistics distribution and emergency rescue, the plan said.

Xpeng AeroHT, a flying car unit of Chinese electric vehicle maker Xpeng Motors, said its flying car will be available for preorders in the fourth quarter of 2024, with delivery to individual users commencing in the fourth quarter of 2025. The vehicle boasts a two-part design, seamlessly switching between terrestrial and aerial modes.

AutoFlight, a Chinese eVTOL aircraft developer, completed the world's first intercity demonstration flight in Guangdong province in February. The company's five-seater eVTOL aircraft could be a faster option for passengers shuttling between Shenzhen and Zhuhai as it takes just 20 minutes compared to a three-hour car ride currently.

AutoFlight has recently delivered its first Prosperity eVTOL aircraft to a customer in Japan, which marks the first global delivery of a civilian eVTOL aircraft weighing over a ton.

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