AutoFlight expects to be ready for a public demonstration of the finalized design of its four-seat Prosperity I eVTOL aircraft by the end of 2022 as it works toward achieving type certification by 2025. The Chinese company believes it will enter the advanced air mobility (AAM) market with production and operating costs that will allow it to significantly undercut Western competitors.
Last month, the AutoFlight team achieved the first full transition between vertical and horizontal operations during flight testing of a proof-of-concept prototype that started in October 2021 in Jiansu province. It reached an altitude of 150 meters (492 feet) and a speed of 123 mph. The company expects to be ready to submit a type certification application in the first quarter of 2023.
Also, by the end of 2022, AutoFlight aims to start cargo delivery services with its V400 and V50 autonomous aircraft. According to founder and CEO Tian Yu, in a February 17 meeting officials with the certification department of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) were “very supportive” of proposals to start operations away from populous, congested areas. These revenue-generating services, flown under an experimental license, will assess use cases for the V400 Albatross and V50 White Shark, which have respective payloads of 100 kg (220 pounds) and 20 kg (44 pounds), and a range of 220 and 500 km (137 and 311 miles).
AutoFlight started flying both drones in 2019 and says that the data logged with these similar designs have allowed it to make rapid progress in developing the Prosperity I. The all-electric aircraft, which was earlier designated as the V1500, is expected to have a range of 250 km (155 miles) and a cruise speed of 200 km/h (125 mph).
To further advance plans to bring the Prosperity I to market, AutoFlight is working on an autonomous freight-delivery version called the CarryAll, for which it aims to have frozen the design by the third quarter of this year with a goal of achieving certification by around August 2023. According to Tian, early uses for this vehicle could include connections to smaller cities in mountainous regions of Southwest China, where a 30-minute flight could replace a 10-hour drive.
At face value, what the Prosperity I promises to bring to market is fairly similar to what some other lift-and-cruise eVTOL designs offer. But what will likely get the attention of rivals is AutoFlight’s claim that it will be able to deliver this at as little as 10 percent of the cost of other aircraft, with anticipated list prices of just $150,000 compared with what it says is a more typical price of $1.5 million per unit.
Tian told FutureFlight that this advantage largely results from the well-established and highly competitive supply chain for electric vehicle manufacturing in the Shanghai area, where AutoFlight is headquartered. It has a production facility for electric propulsion systems in Kunshan near the city and also a composite manufacturing plant at Jining in Shandong province.
According to Tian, a typical electric vehicle drivetrain produced in the Shanghai area now costs around $1,100, and the anticipated cost of each unit for the Prosperity I will be $1,500. He anticipates the price for the aircraft’s eight vertical-lift motor/propeller units and a pair of pusher propellers will be close to $15,000. On top of this, he estimates airframe production costs to be about $50,000 per aircraft and expects flight controls and avionics to add another $40,000.
While AutoFlight is channeling electric automotive technology, the company does have an aviation pedigree. In 1999, Tian founded Yuneec, which quickly established itself as a major manufacturer of radio-controlled model aircraft before expanding into the production of larger electric aircraft and drones, including the E430 electric ultralight two-seat model and the single-seat e-Spyder.
In 2016, after selling his stake in Yuneec, he formed AutoFlight, with his main financial backer being the Team Global venture capital group founded by European technology investor Lukasz Gadowski, who has also invested in other eVTOL manufacturers, including Volocopter and Archer. Tian said AutoFlight could initially produce as many as 1,000 examples of the CarryAll vehicle each year and that its new factory in Shanghai will be able to produce at least 5,000 units per year before the Prosperity I itself enters service in around three years from now.
Earlier this year, the company established its AutoFlight Europe subsidiary at Augsburg in Germany, where it intends to conduct much of the development and certification work as it prepares for EASA certification of the aircraft. This operation is being led by former Airbus executive Mark Henning.
Tian estimates that operating costs for the Prosperity I could be as low as $50 per flight hour, with the cost of electricity for the batteries accounting for around $15 of this total. AutoFlight’s plan is that passenger services will begin with a “safety pilot” on board to oversee the highly automated operation of the aircraft. It envisages the aircraft operating from landing pads on no more than 20 by 20 meters of real estate (4,300 square feet) and making as many as seven flights each hour.
In Tian’s view, fulfilling the potential for eVTOL operations in urban areas will require “a change in mindset” on the part of the industry. “For urban air mobility, the aircraft won’t be flying at over 1,000 feet and so they will still get a signal from a 4G or 5G station and will be in-network all the time,” he maintained. Whether regulators will feel comfortable that ground-based telecommunications can provide sufficient safety redundancy remains to be seen.
AutoFlight’s intention is to be completely self-sufficient in all aspects of design and production. Its business plans for the operational phase are also vertically integrated, with the company aiming to provide passenger and cargo transportation as services, albeit with some type of collaboration with mobility providers.
Significantly, Tian does not view existing aircraft operators as natural partners for AutoFlight’s advanced air mobility business model. He dismissed general aviation operators as “too small” to achieve the scale he envisages and feels that major airlines will have only a peripheral interest in eVTOL aircraft, which he said will never have the range to fit into their networks.
So, instead, AutoFlight aims to connect with companies like German car rental group Sixt and U.S. ride-hailing network Lyft. Tian feels it is companies like these that need to be the retail face of advanced air mobility and achieve the transformative economies of scale that he feels today’s aviation industry is incapable of supporting.
“We’re not like other companies,” said AutoFlight’s chief marketing officer, Jack Xu, echoing Tian’s lofty ambitions for a revolution in public air mobility. “We want to unlock the skies for everyone, not just rich people."
In fact, AutoFlight's approach seems to mirror that of China-based EHang, which appears to be getting close to certifying its autonomous EH216 two-seat eVTOL for the domestic market. It, too, has taken advantage of the CAAC's willingness to allow significant latitude for pre-certification flight operations that in some cases have involved carrying passengers.
In November 2021, AutoFlight completed a $100 million funding round. Tian said that a further round of funding could be concluded by the end of June to add up to another $200 million to its capital base.