Airbus reveals ambitious plan for autonomous flying taxis


Original press release was issued by Airbus, written by Beata Cece.

Imagine a couple of travellers just dropped off at an airport after a long flight. The tediousness only now settles in, as they step outside the arrivals hall and observe the congested traffic and tens of drivers in cabs or buses, their faces shrouded in frustration. It is going to be a long day before they finally drop their bags and relax. Now scrap that thought. How about a reality in which you booked a ride in a flying drone-like vehicle with your smartphone, hopped in and glided over all the traffic jams for about the same cost as a regular taxi? If this ambitious plan didn’t come from Airbus, world’s second largest aeronautical company, it could sound too much as science fiction.

“Many of the technologies needed, such as batteries, motors and avionics are most the way there,” says Airbus engineer Rodin Lyasoff.

Dubbed the “Vahana” project, Airbus plans to create an autonomous network of flying taxis that would not only relieve urban congestion — particularly in “megacities” with upwards of ten million inhabitants — but also be environmentally sustainable and offer a thrilling aerial experience. The company appears to be serious about it, with plans to begin testing as early as 2017. While initially it would be operated by a pilot – similarly to a helicopter – to allow for quick entry into the market, it would switch over to full autonomous operations once regulations are in place.

“No country in the world today allows drones without remote pilots to fly over cities – with or without passengers.” says Bruno Trabel, an engineer from Airbus Helicopters

Let’s go through how Airbus envisions this marvel to work: You arriving at, say, airport would book a seat on a so-called zenHop “CityAirbus” drone, then proceed to arrive to your destination — landing on a chosen zenHub. No need to worry about the cost, zenMove got you covered. It has found a couple of other travellers who are sharing your destination. As a result, the flight costs no more than a taxi ride. On top of that, your luggage would be delivered by zenLuggage and the whole thing would be safeguarded by, drum rolls please, zenCyber.

Source: Airbus Group, Infographic: Beatriz Santacruz

Airbus is also working on a drone delivery service named Skyways, which aims to help evolve current regulatory constraints. Airbus already received allowance to test the service on the campus of the National University of Singapore in mid-2017. Should the team manage to safely demonstrate the operation, this could provide tangible proof to authorities and the general public that commercial drones can indeed operate safely over urban areas.

So far, the company is keeping much of the CityAirbus design “under the wraps”. There are not yet many details revealed on how safe will such an aerial vehicle be, how quiet and in what way would the vehicles communicate with each other. Several technologies, for example see-and-avoid would have to be put in place, before the electric aircraft can become fully unmanned. Airbus is nonetheless determined the idea is feasible and they will drive us towards transportation revolution.

Michal Madaras

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