Airbus to make driverless flying taxis a reality

EPA / Olivier Hoslet

An army of perfectly aligned robotic bodies is moving ominously in sync along a neon, glaring assembly line. In the background, a soft male voice is pitching a revolutionary new airborne vehicle named Versatran in what looks like a TV commercial from the future. The Second Renaissance, or an episode in the best-selling animated film The Animatrix, part of The Matrix saga, depicts an era in which it’s “time to fly” because “it’s the only choice.” But what was once a trademark of some distant future envisioned in both utopic and dystopic renditions may finally become a reality.

Billing it as an affordable way to glide over traffic jams, Airbus revealed it’s building fully automated helicopter-like flying vehicles to transport both cargo and individual passengers. Vahana, a codename for the project, has been in development since February this year at the aircraft manufacturer’s innovation outpost in Silicon Valley, called A3. The first prototype of the electrically-powered self-flying cars is scheduled for testing for the end of next year. And even though this seems quite ambitious, the project executives insist it’s feasible as many of the technologies needed, including batteries, motors and avionics, already exist. Add to that the fact that Airbus is the world’s second largest jet maker, and its market heft and expertise make it more likely that the venture will turn out to be a success.

The airborne taxi, currently dubbed CityAirbus, is being developed in France and Germany, with official design still under wraps. However, Airbus revealed that its taxis would have a drone-like structure and that customers would be able to summon them via an app just like they do with Uber services. Similarly, the sharing economy principle would render the journeys as affordable as a normal taxi ride. In order to penetrate the market, CityAirbus would first have to be manned by a pilot, switching to full autonomous mode once the required regulations are in place. The company’s Skyways division is in charge of making that happen and proving to lawmakers that such vehicles would indeed be safe.

Airbus said its teams were inspired by the idea of smart cities and their multimodal transport networks and wanted to leverage on the company’s scale to find “solutions in the sky”. In line with that, they came up with a concept called zenAIRCITY, where “zen” refers to “zero emissions and noise,” that would use Vahana and Skyways to integrate self-flying vehicles into the infrastructure of today’s megacities. That way, passengers could hop on a flying cab from zenHOP, share the cost of the ride with other people through zenMOVE, have their luggage carried via zenLUGGAGE, while zenCYBER would protect their flight from hacker attacks. Given that very few startups and enterprises have engaged in such projects so far, Airbus sees a truly disruptive opportunity in exploring the concept further.

Amongst the most pressing concerns regarding its exciting plans for the near future, the company cited speed, safety and security of self-flying systems. One of the biggest challenges lies in developing the so-called “sense-and-avoid” technology that is still not perfected for driverless vehicles on the ground, let alone those in the air. Nevertheless, robotic aerial taxis may be able to avoid collisions more effectively, as they can move in three dimensions and face fewer obstacles. Once these hurdles are overcome, and Airbus is moving pretty fast, the seamless travel experience that today’s passengers and commuters yearn for may become an everyday thing.


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