It looks like drones are not going to just be for delivering goods across the last mile. Indeed, Airbus and others want to use the things to deliver people from Point A to Point B without the pain of sitting in traffic on the freeway. Just think: pushing a few buttons on your phone to hail your own personal airborne cab is within a few years’ reach.
Nestled in Silicon Valley, France-based Airbus Group has its own advanced projects wing called A³ whose current objective is to “disrupt the aerospace industry.” A marriage between drones and full-sized planes, Project Vahana is the development of a single-manned autonomous aircraft capable of transporting its passenger deftly through cities, bypassing ground traffic below. According to The Drive, “Vahana is an autonomous flying vehicle platform designed for individual passenger and cargo transport. The project officially started last February, and since then, A³ has already decided on a vehicle design and has begun developing and testing subsystems.”
Designed to function as an eight-rotored Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) craft, the Vahana can maneuver both horizontally and vertically. A full-sized prototype is in the works for launch at the end of next year, with a full beta product available by 2020.
But Project Vahana is only one such initiative put forth by A³. Two others are in the works to remedy other specific problems:
The latter will act as a shuttle for transportation hubs like airports and trains stations. As Government Technology explains, “The visions of the Airbus teams working on these concepts put forth are radically different from the status quo. A passenger arriving at an airport might, instead of taking a taxi, hop into a cheap drone and ride to a hotel with other people. A trip across town wouldn’t involve routing, but simply two dots on a map — a pickup helipad and a dropoff helipad. And all with no traffic to worry about.” Of course, that’s not accounting for other air traffic and buildings that might be in the way, but it certainly beats rush hour on the interstate.
Airbus isn’t the only one looking to take to the skies and bring about the era of air taxis. Uber actually published almost 100 pages of whitepapers on their Uber Elevate program last month, outlining “a fleet of self-flying Vertical Take-Off and Landing vehicles that can be hailed on demand.” Through Uber Elevate, their VTOL scenarios outlining routes like San Francisco to San Jose, California, the city center of Sao Paulo to the suburb of Campinas in Brazil, or Gurgaon to New Delhi in India, these hours-long trips are cut down to mere minutes (which you can see in the chart at right).
While the third-party taxi service is innovative in and of itself, imagine skipping the car and road altogether in favor of your own flying taxi. And though both Vahana and Uber Elevate seek to be completely autonomous, the initial models will be flown by human pilots until drone autonomy can be safely achieved.
There are still even more competitors to this interesting niche from around the world. Germany’s e-volo has begun testing a completely electric Volocopter to achieve the same results and Californian Zee.Aero (backed by none other than Google’s CEO Larry Page) has been playing with its own prototypes. Chinese EHang has also thrown its flying taxi hat in the ring, hoping to test its concept in Nevada by the end of this year.
Despite government regulations hampering commercial drones that deliver packages, the FAA is growing increasingly interested in the flying taxi concept.
When The Drive reached out to them, an FAA spokesman responded in an email: “We have also been working with NASA’s On Demand Mobility project addressing advanced air transportation concepts, which include similar vehicles. 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 [the] 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.”
However, it’s also important to note that, like all computers and machines governed by electronics, there’s still a potential for hackers and ne’er-do-wells to hijack these craft. Though how will be the question these companies will have to answer in order to safeguard both their air taxis and the passengers within them.
Like their smaller, package-delivering counterparts, the FAA is still hesitant on giving an all clear for the use of this technology. At the time of writing, there isn’t a country in the world that allows autonomous drones to fly over cities, regardless if there are passengers. Airbus’ Helicopters division, however, has side-stepped this in Singapore where a memorandum that’ll allow drone parcel delivery to come in effect on the campus of its national university in the middle of next year. Provided the tests go well, other countries may soon warm up to the idea of drones flying over urban areas.
“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,” the FAA spokesperson added in the 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.” But what “the future” means in terms of time is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, A³ still remains optimistic of its own time table.
“In as little as ten years, we could have products on the market that revolutionize urban travel for millions of people,” A³ CEO Rodin Lyasoff said in Forum, Airbus’ corporate magazine. Matthieu Reppelin, another A³ representative, echoes Lyasoff’s sentiment, stating that government regulations are often “a temporary barrier to entry.”
One thing’s for certain: within the next decade, flying taxis might be science fiction come to life. Though I’m still personally a little confused on one thing. If these drones start off manned, what makes them any different from helicopters or current VTOL technology? Perhaps the FAA will look to helicopter flight through urban areas as a basis to begin regulations for these new unmanned passenger drones.
We’ll just have to keep our eyes on the horizon.
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