Airbus is developing a self-piloting flying taxi, or ‘an autonomous flying vehicle platform for individual passenger and cargo transport’.
Flight tests of the prototype, which is not yet built, are planned at the end of 2017. The project, called Vahana, is spearheaded by Airbus’s Silicon Valley innovation centre, A3. Project executive, Rodin Lyasoff, says the system could operate similarly to car-sharing applications, such as Uber or Lyft, using smartphones to book a vehicle. ‘We believe that global demand for this category of aircraft can support fleets of millions of vehicles worldwide,’ Lyasoff says.
Airbus set up A3 (A cubed) in December 2015 as ‘an organization optimized for speed of execution and tolerance of risk, while maintaining strong linkages to the Airbus Group core businesses’. Airbus says the Vahana project has been ‘officially underway since February 2016,’ that design has been selected, and that work on building and testing vehicle subsystems is beginning.
Another project in Singapore, named Skyways, will run a trial of delivery drones over the country’s national university campus next year.
In a separate project, developers in France and Germany at Airbus helicopters (formerly Eurocopter), are working on an electrically operated platform concept for multiple passengers. The vehicle, known as CityAirbus, would have multiple propellers and also resemble a small drone in its basic design.
Airbus says the vehicle at first would be operated by a pilot to allow for quick entry into the market, but eventually would switch over to full autonomous operations once regulations are in place.
Airbus Silicon Valley executive, Matthieu Repellin, said several key enabling technologies for electric air vehicles were maturing. ‘The energy density of batteries is increasing. Sensors are becoming lighter. Processing capabilities are improving. And software to make such vehicles is progressing rapidly,’ he said.
He said electric air vehicles would be similar to self-driving cars, and like them, would overcome regulatory and perception barriers.
The traditional car industry had said exactly the same thing about self-driving cars as was now being said about electric air vehicles, he said. ‘And what do we see now on the road? Google cars. Regulations are only a temporary barrier to entry. Projects such as Skyways and Vahana will help make such obstacles disappear someday.’