Updated: Aug 14
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THE STORY: China's eHang (NASDAQ:EH) announce $6m USD investment in a 600 unit/yr manufacturing facility in Guandong, launch 216F firefighting version of multicopter AAV
WHY IT'S IMPORTANT: eHang is the only publicly listed pureplay eVTOL manufacturer, and they've kicked off Q3 with a diverse string of announcements that should make their competitors nervous. The demonstration flight of an autonomous firefighting aircraft will have required many months of planning and preparation. It presents an interesting potential new source of revenue for the company and indeed a novel application of eVTOL technology that others may well seek to emulate.
If the company can (as now seems highly plausible) hoover up domestic contracts in China for high-rise firefighting using the 216F aircraft, optimise the platform and expand it internationally - an entirely new market for aerial firefighting services could conceivably be created. Firefighting AAVs might also help engender public trust in and acceptance of passenger-carrying eVTOLs used for other applications - in much the same way that air ambulances have provided helicopters with a degree of social capital. Cash earned from emergency response work could also be fed back into new product development - we suspect it's likely the company is working on a hybrid fixed-wing eVTOL for longer range missions than the 216 multicopter is capable of - they are spending over $2m uSD per quarter on R&D. eHang's competitors are looking for ways to generate revenue as they wait for the technical and regulatory barriers to commercial air taxi services to be resolved - eHang meanwhile continue to roll out a whole host of products - from drone delivery, sightseeing and aerial light shows to smart city surveillance and aerial logistics services.
The announcement that eHang will begin work on constructing a manufacturing facility capable of producing over 600 units / yr is also worthy of note - for comparison the world's entire general aviation market delivered an average of 2,400 units/yr between 2015 and 2019. Joby Aviation are the only competitor we're aware of who have concrete plans for a serial production facility in the public domain - a 580,000 sq ft facility proposed for Marina Municipal Airport, California on which they'll work with investors Toyota.
There are likely to be use cases where Joby's four-seat, piloted S4 aircraft and eHang's two-seat, autonomous 216 are in direct competition. What remains to be seen is how comparable costs on the two vehicles will be - even with the US Air Force's Agility Prime programme supporting Joby (and Beta Technologies) through certification and potentially ordering an initial batch of commercial-spec vehicles, it might prove tough for them to compete with eHang's low Chinese labour costs, production overheads and mature domestic supply chain for for batteries and electrical components.
A domestic eVTOL supply chain is a jewel both China and the US seem determined to secure for their economic crowns, and it's worth remembering that there will be military applications for the technology too. It'll be interesting to see to what extent Beijing, Washington and their associated civil aviation authorities are prepared to open up their airspace (and aircraft certification programmes) to one another's next generation electric aircraft, given the current political climate and the need for such aircraft to integrate with domestic communications infrastructure.
THE STORY: German eVTOL manufacturer Lilium eyeing Tampa Bay, Florida for initial US air taxi operations - Tampa to St Petersburg pitched as 8 minute, $90 USD journey
WHY IT'S IMPORTANT: eVTOL air taxis are at best a few years away from anything but small-scale flight operations, but even these pioneering commercial services will require landing infrastructure to be in place before aircraft can safely ferry passengers from A to B. With it probably costing c. $1bn USD to certify an eVTOL aircraft there's no manufacturer with the balance sheet to finance building the vertiport infrastructure on which their aircraft will depend.
With little prospect of revenue to offset vertiport investments for several years at least, and plenty of technological and regulatory risk on the horizon, such infrastructure projects will remain the preserve of those with a healthy balance sheet and high appetite for risk, in the short-term at least. That doesn't make vertiports especially well matched to the conservative world of infrastructure finance just yet unfortunately (read our thoughts on financing vertiport infrastructure here).
German unicorn Lilium have recently made clear that they expect others to pay for the ground infrastructure from which their aircraft will operate, and this shouldn't come as too much of a shock. Car manufacturers are not expected to build roads, airlines rarely finance construction of the airports from which they operate.
Infrastructure then is the only piece of the 'Regional Air Mobility' pie Lilium does not expect to retain control of. Their corporate strategy to date has been one of complete vertical integration. It has seen them eschew participation in Uber's Elevate programme and instead pursue a design, manufacture, own and operate strategy - in stark contrast to the norms of commercial aviation. It is an approach which sets them apart from much of the rest of the nascent industry, and puts them in direct competition with the ride-sharing giant.
Uber's customer-facing product will be Uber Air and launch markets have already been selected - Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne. Lilium have been more tight-lipped about the markets they're looking to initially. Behind the scenes it's likely their 500-strong team are crunching data to identify candidate routes for initial operations - their website suggests locations including London, New York and Hong Kong are on the cards, but recently we got a glimpse at the $1bn+ Bavarian company's charm offensive underway with local authorities in Florida's Tampa Bay.
Touting flights across the bay from Tampa to St Petersburg in just 8 minutes and at a cost of $90 USD, the company secured a vote in favour of progressing talks. The area might still be on course to become one of the first sites in the US to host commercial air taxi service operations with eVTOL aircraft. Unless the Trump administration decides it objects to the backing of their Chinese investors Tencent and European manufacturing base of course...
In the presentation Lilium promised the $90 USD price point would reduce significantly within three years due to reduced production costs, pilots being removed from cockpits and expansion of the network / higher asset utilisation. Anticipating initial service by 2025 Dr Wanner laid out a vision with some notable takeaways:
Lilium absolutely envisage that vertiport infrastructure will be shared amongst operators rather than being proprietary - which hasn't been previously confirmed to our knowledge
Autonomy will comes in stages and probably not until well into the 2030s, happening in phases such as; pilot-in-vehicle > remote piloting > remote multi-vehicle piloting > full autonomy
On a short 25 mile / 8 min route such as Tampa <> St Petersburg the company envision being able to perform 'a few' turnarounds on a single vehicle within an operational hour
A small rooftop vertiport (presumably with a small fleet of vehicles) should be able to handle "a few hundred, maybe up to a thousand passengers per hour"
It was noted that Lilium have been in contact with counties and cities in the area already with a view to securing partnerships for the most relevant landing sites. It was also clear that there's some enthusiasm from TBARTA towards 'being first' in securing what could prove a sustainable means of transportation with transformative benefits for residents in the area.
THE STORY: Drone delivery projects continue to see COVID-19-fuelled acceleration around the world, as remote work and social distancing fuel demand for contactless deliveries
WHY IT'S IMPORTANT: We've previously reported on a range of drone delivery projects ongoing around the world, from Google spinout Wing delivering coffees in Canberra to Windracers' huge piston-powered drone delivering medical supplies across Britain's Solent waterway for the country's National Health Service.
And the world's newfound enthusiasm for robotic airborne deliveries shows no signs of abating. In the US Volansi signed an agreement that will see their C10-Gen 2 drone start trials in North Carolina. Volansi ($25m USD in funding) are notable in that they offer both commercial and defence varieties of their products, as well as both fully electric and hybrid solutions.
This has meant the company are able to offer a range of options for different applications - with different iterations of the same airframe design 'family' - a hybrid fixed-wing design with separate lift and cruise propellers - an architecture that's becoming increasingly common in the eVTOL space, in everything from small drones to passenger-carrying eVTOL aircraft (eg. Wisk's Cora air taxi).
At the top-end of Volansi's product family at present is their M20 UAS, unveiled in May 2020 and shown in the video below. It's designed for maritime operations and can carry up to a 20 lbs / 9kg payload over a 350-mile range / 8-hour endurance:
The company is working with the US Air Force on a base security project, took part in the African Drone Forum's Lake Kivu Challenge and has been collaborating with Merck on a project for safe transport of temperature-controlled medicines and vaccines, trialled in the Bahamas following test flights in Switzerland and Puerto Rico.
Volansi's announcement comes in the same week as The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum accepted the first drone to make a commercial delivery in the US into the museum's national collection in the US, and founder of African drone delivery pioneers Zipline ($233m in funding), Keller Rinaudo, shared video footage of the company operating from their first distribution centre in the Californian company's domestic market:
Having focused on emerging African markets until now (notably Rwanda and Ghana) the company has partnered with Novant Health to distribute PPE and other medical equipment in North Carolina, on a 32-mile route between Kannapolis and Huntersville - where frontline healthcare workers are treating coronavirus patients. The FAA have granted the company a Part 107 waiver for the operation that runs to the end of October.
This week we also saw Her Majesty's Coastguard in the UK adopt the use of UAVs to support search and rescue operations in Wales - an announcement that came just days before the organisation reported its busiest day of callouts in four years as Brits crowded their home nation's beaches after months in lockdown and ongoing uncertainty over holidays abroad. Such drone assisted surveillance operations on the UK's coast are likely to see increasing demand as the country's beaches regain popularity with domestic tourists.
With a sudden uptick in migrant boats traversing the English Channel from France, which has garnered huge amounts of Ministerial and media attention in Britain, it's likely the UK Border Force too will step up their use of drones for maritime surveillance operations, particularly around the Kent coast - , are likely to be used to patrol the country's borders as well, as appears to have been trialled earlier in the year.
And in other drone news this week, as if to confirm that drone delivery's time has come, the Smithsonian accepted a retired aircraft from Wing into the National Air and Space Museum collection - drone A1229 is reported to be the first drone to make a commercial home delivery in the United States.