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What you need to know about China’s low-altitude economy | BEYOND EXPO 2024

China’s major southern city of Guangzhou unveiled its action plan on May 31 to boost the development of the so-called “low-altitude economy,” vowing to become China’s first city to commercialize aircraft for passenger transport in low-altitude airspace over the next three years, and it is not alone. Nearly 30 Chinese major city and provincial governments have brought similar initiatives into their work plans for this year as of writing, according to public records.

Chinese regional authorities are responding to Beijing’s call to establish a number of strategic emerging industries as some traditional economic pillars of the country are in recession. Beijing also wants to replicate its success story of electric vehicles from land to sky, as part of its ambition to become a global leader in technological innovations. Among various aircraft from drones to traditional helicopters, flying cars are likely to be a bright spot, and southern China could offer what it takes for that to happen, industry experts said.

What is a low-altitude economy?

Although there is no official definition of what constitutes a “low-altitude economy,” it usually refers to various businesses centered around civil-manned and unmanned aerial vehicles below 3,000 meters in altitude, including manufacturing, flight operations, and services for agriculture, logistics, and tourism.

The idea was first mooted by China’s State Council with an outline for establishing “a national comprehensive transportation network” back in February 2021 and was later listed as one of the strategic emerging industries at the central economic work conference in December.

Compared with China’s traditional general aviation sector, which includes military and commercial flights, a low-altitude economy is characterized by the elements of vertical take-off and landing, green energies, and intelligent piloting, said Burt Guo, CEO of Aerofugia Technology, a subsidiary of Geely.

“EVs in the air”

Electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOL), also known as flying cars, are considered the most promising application, garnering particular attention from investors and entrepreneurs, due to their potential for both passenger and cargo delivery at a presumably lower cost than helicopters. That is not the only reason, though. China is looking to leverage the capabilities that already exist within its EV industry, from supply chain to charging infrastructure, bringing the global competition for emerging technologies from the ground into the air.

“So is it almost like EVs in the air?” “Yes, you get the point,” Guo said when asked by Zheng Junfeng, an anchor of Chinese state television news services CGTN, at the recent BEYOND EXPO 2024 tech event last month in Macao. Guo added that eVTOL could share around 70%-80% of the materials and components with EVs, with the rest being sourced from the suppliers for traditional aircraft, while there is always room for collaboration with its parent company in fields such as manufacturing and charging.

“It’s kind of an ecosystem for new energy transportation,” Guo said. Geely led a €50 million ($55 million) funding round into Volocopter in 2019 and the German air taxi startup set up a joint venture with Aerofugia two years later.

It also represents a more cost-effective solution for urban transportation compared with subways and bypasses. Each parking garage and building rooftop in the city could be “ideal” for flying vehicles to park and refuel, according to Jian Dan, executive vice general manager of Civil Aviation Investment Fund, led by the parent of Beijing International Airport Co Ltd (our translation). “It is totally different from helicopters,” Guo echoed, saying the landing space would be “considerably smaller” than what a traditional helicopter uses.

Although consulting firm McKinsey in 2020 estimated it would cost $200,000-$400,000 to build a takeoff and landing area along with two spots for parking or vehicle maintenance, Jian believed the smallest location of such kind could be as cheap as “several thousand RMB.” Guo said a flying car would cost 30% of a helicopter, even as the technology is still in the early stages, and in the end, the cost of a trip by eVTOL could plunge to roughly two to three times that of a taxi.

mobility flying vehicle evtol Electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft xpeng aeroht ehang china us germany
Xpeng AeroHT, an affiliate of Chinese electric vehicle maker Xpeng Motors, displayed a prototype flying vehicle at the BEYOND EXPO 2024 in Macao during May 22-25, 2024. Credit: BEYOND EXPO

Still a distant future

Although the industry is growing at a faster pace, it could take at least three to five years before flying vehicles get commercialized, mainly because most players are still navigating technological challenges and regulatory hurdles, experts said. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects 5% carbon emission reductions globally by 2030 through the use of sustainable aviation fuels, innovative new propulsion technologies, and other efficiency improvements.

Electric planes are definitely the future of aviation, but the technology is not ready yet, and the battery is one of the key issues, Zhou Lisha, CEO of Chinese battery startup Montavista, told the audience at the BEYOND EXPO 2024. “Companies have to prove every inch of their aircraft is safe, and one of the tests is to make sure the batteries won’t catch fire, because you can’t stop or pull to the side of the road when something goes wrong,” said Zhou.

For that reason, governments are implementing highly stringent rules and safety standards for electric and autonomous aircraft. China has set a goal for businesses to mass produce lithium-ion batteries that meet aviation safety standards with an energy density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg), as part of a development plan through 2035 released by four top government bodies late last year. For comparison, CATL’s latest Qilin battery reportedly has an energy density of 255 Wh/kg.

Operating air taxis in low-altitude urban airspace may also encounter many conflicts with high-rise buildings within a volatile electromagnetic environment. There has to be new telecommunication infrastructure facilities and a new air traffic control system to support the operation of those unmanned aircraft, according to Jian. “It is definitely not feasible for those machines to communicate with air traffic control via radio,” Jian said at this year’s BEYOND EXPO.

Guangdong: a major staging ground

The Chinese government is jumping in to offer some help. Guangzhou said it will keep “close connections” with eVTOL makers and provide “necessary assistance” to them, when it comes to issues related to research and development, and airworthiness certification, among others. The capital city of southern Guangdong province also plans to build at least five eVTOL airport terminals, known as vertiports, as well as 100 takeoff and landing spots by 2027.

Headquartered in Guangzhou, US-listed Ehang said in October it received an airworthiness “type certificate” from the Civil Aviation Administration of China, CNBC reported, while Xpeng AeroHT, an affiliate of local EV maker Xpeng Motors, followed suit by submitting its application in March. AutoFlight, another Shanghai-based startup, reportedly hit a milestone early this year when its five-seater Prosperity aircraft completed a low-altitude flight between the southern cities of Shenzhen and Zhuhai in the Guangdong province.

Guo expects the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area (GBA) to be the first region in the country where its flying vehicles will be available. “If you take a taxi from here (Macao) to Shenzhen it takes one to two hours. That will be only around 15 minutes if you use a flying vehicle,” Guo said.

READ MORE: Beyond Expo | Self-flying cars are closer to being realized than self-driving cars: Geely executive

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