Derrick Xiong - The face of Ehang

There are anything between 50 and 100 different companies that claim to be developing passenger drones. But, then, there are some which win the greatest media attention for their particular projects. One of which is Ehang.

The Chinese technology firm first made headlines back in 2016 after it unveiled the Ehang 184, a one- to two-seater fully-electric VTOL in a video on its YouTube channel that has been watched one and a half million times to date.

It is also developing a two-seater VTOL called the Ehang 216, but this is still an early prototype.

The company was founded by Hu Huazhi back in 2012 after his best friend Ji Chen died in a flight accident. Soon after this, Mr Huazhi’s flying coach lost his life when a helicopter he was piloting malfunctioned – leading Mr Huazhi on a path to design a completely safe aerial vehicle.

The company started off developing private consumer drone products, with its GhostDrone which can be bought right now for between $399 and $899. It is also helping cities and drone operators across the world create consumer-drone command bases and UAV infrastructures. All the money made from this is being pumped back into Mr Hu’s dream project, the ‘completely safe aerial vehicle’ - the Ehang 184.

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The Air Taxi Race

The Chinese government has a great deal of support to the start-up company, granting it a testing ground in Guangzhou. When you see a video of an Ehang VTOL test flight, it is most likely flying around the abandoned theme park which is the aircraft’s testing ground.

Another leg-up for Ehang is that it has the most aircraft and has flown the most test flights out of all the VTOL manufacturers. Ehang Co-founder and CMO Derrick Xiong claims Ehang has flown 30-40 built VTOL protypes on around 1,500 flights in total.

The company has also taken the plunge and has flown its aircraft in some incredibly adverse weather conditions. Ehang conducted one manned test flight of its VTOL in a type 7 typhoon, whilst a lot of competing VTOL manufacturers are still wary about flying their aircraft in standard rainy conditions.


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The Face of Ehang

 

Whilst Mr Hui founded the company, the face of the company is co-founder and CMO Yifang ‘Derrick’ Xiong, a Silicon Valley software engineer who partnered with Mr Hu in 2008.

 

Mr Xiong has been making the media circuit over the past couple of years and has become a go-to reference point for the private- and passenger-drone markets.

This week, he took the stage at the Future of Transportation Conference in Cologne to pitch Ehang’s VTOL and talk about the future of the air-taxi market.

However, Mr Xiong was mainly there to connect with the other manufacturers and build contacts in western markets. Last year Ehang completed the majority of its flight tests and R&D. This year, it is moving on, building contacts and trying to get the product out to as many people as possible.

This will culminate at the end of 2018, when Ehang plans to open its very first Ehang store in China to invite potential buyers to test the aircraft before they buy.

After Mr Xiong’s panel presentation in Cologne, VTOL Investor sat down to talk with him about how he got into VTOLs, the reception of the Ehang VTOL and what we might expect to see from the company over the next few years.


Talking to Derrick Xiong:

 

VI: How did you get into VTOL development?

“My partner was a helicopter pilot and has flown many types of helicopter over the years, But after two of his friends died in flying accidents, he was motivated to consider what we could do to make flying rotorcraft safer and develop the Ehang 184.

“At the time I was in North Carolina studying electrical engineering and he was in Beijing majoring in computer science and helping design the control centre for the Beijing Olympic games. We met shortly after the accidents and it was his dream to build a safer aircraft with more redundancy safety measures to make sure accidents like that didn’t happen again.

“When I heard the story, I said I could help on the technical and operational side and focus on the R&D. We set up the company back in China in his apartment in 2012 and we registered the company in 2014 after netting investors.”

VI: What is the relationship between VTOL manufacturers like right now?

“Right now, there is no form of competition. There are different companies pushing in the same direction and we are all heading towards the same future. It is most important to talk to and understand the other companies and figure out what is happening because no one is making any profit in this market yet.

“Whoever has a breakthrough either on the tech side or on the regulatory side will benefit everyone else. We want to make this happy reality and make passenger drones a part of reality.”

VI: How are people responding to Ehang?

“The response from the public has been fantastic, with all three of our flight-test videos getting close to or over a million views on YouTube.

“We have people both inside the VTOL space and outside interested in our project around the world. We have partnered with Chinese electronics company Huawei and Dutch mobile technologies company KPN to help spread the word.

“In April, Ehang and KPN arranged for Dutch Prince Pieter Christiaan to test fly the Ehang 216 around an Amsterdam arena which got a lot of publicity. We are also going to be demonstrating in Azerbaijan. Norway, Germany, Dubai and Qatar in the near future.

“We have partners in the US for our package drone products. We partnered with US public benefit tech company Lung Biotechnology, which has placed a large order with us and which also invested in Ehang back in 2016. It is a very large company, valued at approximately $5 billion.

They have a lot of faith of us and we are working with them to develop a UAS to transport human organs for medical-emergency services.”

VI: Where is most of your funding coming from?

“We are getting a lot of our money from venture capital investors. Unlike a lot of others in the VTOL space, we have complete product lines in our DroneSwarm and GhostDrone products. We also help cities build drone-command centres and sell private camera drones to consumers.

“The money we get from these products is going back into helping develop the Ehang passenger drone.

“Right now, we are figuring out who our partners are that share the same goal as us and can help us move towards developing a commercial passenger drone market.”

VI: What can we expect to see from Ehang over the next couple of years?

“You can expect to see more regular public flight demos around the world. Along the way we are going to figure out what operations the Ehang Vtol will perform best on, where will be the best opportunity to monetise and where we can make a more-commercial operation.

“Also, in the next couple of years we really expect to see the VTOL passenger-drone market take off and I think Ehang will be there at the forefront. We think that the Ehang aircraft is the most suitable passenger drone as it is small, easy to fly and multirotor.

“Right now, we are focusing on the two-seater. Whilst there is a lot of talk around the four- to five-seater market for air taxis, I think it is more important to look at what you have and how you can best monetise VTOLs at this early stage. If we can make any one model happen, then we can talk about developing bigger aircraft.”