Airbus Nearing in on Driverless “Air Taxis”

By Cody Laska
Technology & Innovation Writer

Aerospace industry titan Airbus is nearing trials on its most ambitious venture yet.
By the end of 2017 project Vahana will be up in the air; in the best way possible. Named after the Hindu word for a mythical deity’s mount or transport, the project will seek to provide the solution to traffic and transportation in cities that are growing at an alarming rate.

Spearheaded by Airbus’ innovation division A3 and partnered with two US based technology and defense firms MTSI and SOAR Oregon, the objective is to provide an “air taxi” that will relieve urban congestion by simply going over it.

While the project may seem ambitious and bordering on impossible, project executive Rodin Lyasoff has stated “many of the technologies needed, such as batteries, motors and avionics are most of the way there.” Continuing that the biggest challenge still facing the product is a “sense-and-avoid system”; something that is currently slowly being implemented in cars but is entirely unprecedented in the aerospace industry.

With the backing of Airbus CEO Tom Enders, this project is beginning to appear less like science fiction and more like reality.

In a recently published article by A3 Mr. Enders is quoted as saying, “I’m no big fan of Star Wars, but it’s not crazy to imagine that one day our big cities will have flying cars making their way along roads in the sky…we’ll use our smartphones to book a fully automated flying taxi that will land outside our front door.”

The upcoming test is to be completed under real world conditions that would be able to demonstrate to that drones should be able to fly over and through urban locations. This would seek to prove both the functionality of the project itself as well as attempt to relax the constraints on unmanned aircraft operations.

The test site was selected from another A3 project relating to transporting cargo around the National University of Singapore.

While the original idea in play from investors and those on the outside of the project viewed this as an attempt to mimic and encroach on Amazon’s drone delivery system, in actuality it was to test the feasibility of drone movement through urbanized locations.

The drones would begin their pick up off of a cargo ship situated in a harbor next to the campus and would then proceed to fly from pre-determined locations that vary in distance and in urban coverage before reaching the final target.

Singapore was chosen as the CAAS, their equivalent of the FAA, as well as the general government are the most open to unique solutions to their growing population and urbanization. If these coming test flights are viewed as successful, both on the end of the CAAS and Airbus, this could lead to commercial implementation.

While the technical aspects of the project have been kept close to the chest, some information on the design has been released.

There are currently two designs in the works: one featuring 8 propellers with a smaller cargo cabin, and a larger two turbine unit that could fit more people and carry heavier weight.

Only time will tell if this idea can become a reality. But in a world where cars are learning to drive themselves and life can be managed through a smartphone, a flying taxi would not seem out of place.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, November 8th print edition.

Contact Cody at
cody.laska@student.shu.edu

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