China has been making significant strides in the urban air mobility sector, especially in the development of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. This October, a new milestone is set to be reached as Shenzhen, a city known for its tech industry, is slated to open the nation’s first eVTOL passenger route to Zhuhai, potentially turning a lengthy road journey into a quick 15-minute air commute.
AutoFlight: Spearheading the eVTOL revolution
Fengfei Aviation Technology, known by its English name AutoFlight, a chinese pioneer in the eVTOL sector, declared on July 13 a demonstration flight for the Shenzhen-Zhuhai route, a landmark in intercity air traffic. The demonstration, scheduled for the year’s last quarter, employs the company’s innovative five-seater Prosperity I eVTOL aircraft.
The flight itinerary outlines a departure from Shenzhen’s “Light of the Bay Area” ferris wheel, an arrival at Zhuhai’s Riyuebei, followed by a return journey, all within an estimated 30-minute window. The chosen route traverses diverse landscapes, from urban to maritime, showcasing the versatility of the eVTOL aircraft.
This aerial commute significantly trims the usual 2.5 to 3-hour road trip between Shenzhen and Zhuhai, often extended by traffic congestion. It’s a game changer for future business commuters, promising efficiency and expediency.
AutoFlight’s senior vice president, Xie Jia, explains that Zhuhai’s selection hinges on its representativeness. Positioned on opposite sides of the Pearl River, Shenzhen and Zhuhai offer a route that encompasses various terrains, a test-bed for demonstrating the performance of Prosperity I across different scenarios. This quick, direct connection between the two cities could be a transformative factor for future business commuters.
Shenzhen: An emerging hub in the low-altitude economy
As a trendsetter in the flourishing low-altitude economy, Shenzhen is a magnet for businesses specializing in drone-assisted deliveries, tourism, and aerial imaging. Companies like EHang Intelligence are pioneering aerial tourism, while Meituan prioritizes drone-enabled instant deliveries.
Shenzhen, already at the forefront of eVTOL technology and urban air mobility, highlighted in its 2023 government report a plan to create a dedicated low-altitude economic center. The city’s Baoan District Government has already laid the groundwork, developing an industrial value chain spanning drones, aircraft manufacturing, avionics, and satellite navigation, along with materials and software development.
Industry giants such as Fengyi Technology, Lingyue Aviation, and Keweitai are rapidly advancing in the field. In addition, Shenzhen envisions future enhancements for the low-altitude economy, including plans for a national airworthiness certification center, an airspace management center, and a collaborative innovation center.
Regulatory hurdles and the path to commercial flight
However, the road to commercial flights is still paved with hurdles. As with large aircraft like the domestically produced C919, eVTOL manned aircraft must apply for three airworthiness certificates. “Our 2-ton eVTOL load-carrying model is expected to obtain the type certificate (TC) issued by the Civil Aviation Administration of China early next year, and then apply for the airworthiness of the manned model. The real manned commercial use may be after 2025,” Jia explained.
The Prosperity I eVTOL manned aircraft, purely electric and capable of speeds over 200 km/h, set a world record for a ton-level eVTOL flight of over 250 km on a single charge in February. This aircraft, capable of seating five and technically ready for automatic pilot flight, will initially operate with a flight safety officer and four passengers.
AutoFlight’s partnerships and ambitions
In a bid to expand its international presence, AutoFlight applied for a type certificate (TC) from the European Aviation Safety Agency EASA in February. The application was accepted, which signifies an initial approval of the aircraft’s design, bringing it a step closer to operating abroad.
In addition, AutoFlight has secured a strategic cooperation agreement with Aéroports de Paris to conduct a trial run of the Prosperity I eVTOL during the Paris Olympic Games in 2024.
Closer to home, on July 13, AutoFlight signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Baoan District Government of Shenzhen. The government will assist AutoFlight in landing its eVTOL large-scale aircraft project in Shenzhen and cities in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area. This cooperation will support local test flights, product sales, low-altitude infrastructure construction, and low-altitude economic operations for AutoFlight’s eVTOL aircraft.
eVTOL technology: A transformative leap in urban mobility
As the dawn of the eVTOL era approaches, the inaugural Shenzhen-Zhuhai route represents an important first step. The potential of eVTOL technology for transforming urban mobility and reshaping economies is immense. But the journey towards widespread adoption is likely to be a long one, fraught with technological and regulatory challenges, including insufficient infrastructure, a complex airspace approval process, and a lack of refined management and control platform.
Yet, the progress being made in Shenzhen and other Chinese cities offers a glimpse into a future where our skies are as busy as our roads. With pioneers like AutoFlight leading the way, this vision is edging closer to reality. The 6-year-old startup from Shanghai operates its European R&D and certification center from Augsburg, Germany already since 2018 and is actively expanding its partnership network in the European eVTOL markets.
This article was adapted based on a feature originally written by He Ming Liang and published on Times Media (WeChat ID: tf-app). 36Kr Global is authorized to translate, adapt, and publish its contents.