Airbus wants to surprise the world by building a vehicle that seems to have been taken straight out of a sci-fi movie. They plan to test their prototype of a self-piloted urban transport for individual passenger and cargo by the end of 2017. This is one of the phases they need to successfully complete as part of their ongoing project called Vahana.
Project Vahana is the brainchild of A³ (read as “A-cubed”), Airbus’ advanced projects and partnerships arm situated in Silicon Valley, which begun in the early months of 2016. The team aims to build a compact vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft that can safely transport one person or parcel without human piloting assistance. If all goes as planned, they’ll be able to provide a complete product ready for mass production by 2021.
Airbus is a worldwide leader in designing and manufacturing aircraft. They have divisions specializing in defense and space, and helicopters. Vahana is just one of the company’s ambitions to relieve the world’s increasing traffic problems due to urban congestion.
Traffic continues to be a bane for commuters, wasting countless hours on the road instead of spending time resting or doing something more productive. Every day, more and more people are starting to live in cities, renting apartment spaces or buying units in high-rise condominiums in places near their work area. According to Airbus’ predictions, more than half of the global populace will be living in cities by 2030. This is where they’re disruptive solution, Vahana comes into play.
Vahana is geared towards using a tilt-wing design with 8 rotors for their prototype model. This design is more practical, consumes less energy, and more aerodynamic compared to the one-rotor structure of a helicopter. The 8 rotors also provide motor redundancy in case one fails to function properly. However, the design can still change as more tests are done and improvements in avionics are developed.
Rodin Lyasoff, CEO of A³, said the 2017 target is attainable especially when almost everything they need, including lightweight materials, motors, electronic batteries, and avionics, are readily available. The only major component that remains a challenge is getting a reliable obstacle detection and avoidance tech to work in aerial situations. Crash detection systems are already being refined for land vehicles but a similar tech that will work up in the air is still under development.
Today, not one country allows unpiloted drones to fly – with or without a passenger. Airbus responds to this hurdle by cooperating with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) in a memorandum of understanding, to fly a drone delivery service over the National University of Singapore this 2017. This is to continuously test their prototypes, fine-tuning them to be able to deliver parcels at first and possibly transport humans in the following years.
The agreement with CAAS is a part of their plans to proceed with another part of their 3-tier vision called Skyways Project. Their aim is to evaluate the efficiency and economic value of air transport systems like the Vahana in real-world situations. They want to provide tangible and convincing proof to everyone, especially aviation authorities, that drones can be flown safely over crowded, urban areas.
Delivering parcels is what Amazon is already doing with its Prime Air service but Airbus is not planning to be a competitor. In fact, they see Amazon, DHL, and other companies with delivery services as potential customers.
Amazon has already built a drone for their Prime Air service and claims to have successfully delivered a parcel to their first customer. However, regulations are in the way of fully realizing the potential of this system. Amazon needs to guarantee the security of flying drones above heavily-populated areas, much like what Airbus plans to prove with their projects.
Airbus Helicopters has also been working on something revolutionary for the past few years and they say it won’t need to wait for regulations to change to fly it. This is the last item on the list of Airbus’ vision for 2020 and beyond.
Airbus developers are working on an electrically-powered aerial taxi for transporting multiple passengers and it’s called ‘CityAirbus”. Technical details of the project are still in the shadows but they disclosed it will be operated at first by a human pilot. This allows it to quickly enter the market and pass strict aviation regulations for flying drones above cities.
After Airbus completes projects Vahana and Skyways, they would have proven the safety of flying drones for human transport to the general public. Laws would have also eased by then for this new type of public carriage. Only then will they switch to fully automating the CityAirbus and fly it without human assistance.
Airbus is adamant to prove the world they can develop a new, safe, and revolutionary mode of transportation which can resolve the continuing rise in traffic problems. If everything goes as planned, we’ll soon be able to hail a flying taxi through a mobile app and get to our destination in an instant. And we’ll have a good view of the city below too.