With autonomous cars already deemed a foregone conclusion, mobility companies are setting their sights on a new horizon: self-flying taxis.
Last month, Uber released a white paper detailing its strategy for doing for air travel what it has done for cars. Uber Elevate aims to build a fleet of self-flying Vertical Take-Off and Landing vehicles (VTOL) that can be hailed on demand. VTOLs operate a bit like helicopters, but are meant for a single passenger, are dramatically less noisy due to their electric motors, and are ultimately designed to be flown autonomously. This ambitious plan may not be as far fetched as it sounds: The major airplane manufacturer Airbus is also tackling this uncharted territory, and recently unveiled its own master plan to revolutionize urban transit.
Project Vahana is the first planned autonomous flying vehicle from A³, the advanced projects and partnerships outpost of France-based Airbus Group. Based in Silicon Valley, A³ researchers operate under the directive to disrupt the aerospace industry, and as their opening salvo are developing a single manned autonomous aircraft similar to Uber Elevate.
With eight rotors on two sets of wings that tilt depending on whether the vehicle is flying vertically or horizontally, Vahana is an autonomous flying vehicle platform designed for individual passenger and cargo transport. The project officially started in February, and since then A³ has already decided on a vehicle design and has begun developing and testing subsystems. If all goes according to plan, flight tests for a full-size prototype are slated for the end of 2017, and by 2020 the company is aiming to a beta product, according to an A³ spokesperson.
The biggest hurdle to this endeavor will be getting regulators to give Vahana the green light. At present, no countries permit drones without remote pilots to fly over cities, with or without passengers. However, Singapore recently signed a memorandum of understanding allowing Airbus Helicopters to test a drone parcel delivery service on the campus of the National University of Singapore in mid-2017. If successful, this pilot program will demonstrate the feasibility and safety of commercial drones operating safely over urban areas. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration may not be that far behind.
“We are taking a flexible, open-minded, and risk-based approach to integrating new technologies into the world’s busiest, most complex – and safest–aviation system," wrote a spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration in an email. "We have discussed certification projects with several manufacturers of aircraft that will be flown with a pilot in the beginning, then converted to autonomous passenger aircraft in the future."
Uber and Airbus aren't alone in their plans to divert some rush-hour traffic to the sky, and in fact are already collaborating on a new business model using Airbus Group’s H125 and H130 helicopters to provide an on-demand transportation service. Terrafugia has been working on Transition, a flying car, for several years, and recently received FAA approval for certification as a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA). German manufacturer e-volo has begun testing its fully-electric Volocopter, and Hollister, Calif.-based Zee.Aero—a secretive aeronautics transportation company backed by Google CEO Larry Page—also has put prototypes in the air. Even the government is angling to make the flying taxi a reality.
"We have also been working with a NASA’s On Demand Mobility project addressing advanced air transportation concepts, which include similar vehicles," the FAA spokesperson explained. "Several areas still need further research and development, particularly the operational aspects of making sure the automation that will 'fly' the autonomous aircraft is safe, and how they automation will interact with the air traffic control system. We believe automation technology already being prototyped in low risk unmanned aircraft missions, when fully mature, could have a positive impact on general aviation safety."
When these projects will come to fruition is anyone's guess; the FAA declined to comment on timelines for autonomous aircraft. However, A³ executives expect rapid development of this industry, since many of the components, such as lightweight batteries, motors, composite materials, and avionics are already on the market.
“In as little as ten years, we could have products on the market that revolutionize urban travel for millions of people,” said A3 CEO Rodin Lyasoff in an article in Airbus' corporate magazine, Forum.
A lot is riding on this projection panning out. Project Vahana is a stepping stone for another aerial vehicle, an electrically operated platform concept for multiple passengers that goes by the working title of CityAirbus. This bus-helicopter mashup would resemble a small drone in its basic design, and while initially it would be operated by a pilot, it would ultimately transition to full autonomous operation after regulations are in place and its safety is thoroughly vetted.
But first things first—A3 has to get Project Vahana off the ground, both figuratively literally.