In attempting to ease congestion on city streets, Airbus is promising to actualize the fantasy of just about anyone who has spent hours stuck in traffic: to simply fly right over it. According to Airbus Group’s website: “Traffic problems are becoming more acute across the globe as a result of increasing urbanization particularly in “megacities” – urban centers with upwards of ten million inhabitants.” The plan, better known as Project Vahana, would create a fleet of on-demand autonomous drones that would be used to transport passengers from one location to another. The best part: they have promised that the flying taxis will cost the same as a regular taxi.
The CityAirbus – named a zenHop, which would transport multiple passengers at a time, would take off from a local helipad (zenHub), pooling together travelers going to the same destination, with luggage shipped separately via a zenLuggage. (Zen being a prefix that stands for zero emissions and noise). The company has promised flight tests as early as 2017.
And while the initial design would allow for pilot operations, it would eventually operate autonomously once regulations are adopted
The project, which kicked off in February 2016, will soon be testing vehicle subsystems. A3 project executive Rodin Lyasoff, who is leading the team’s innovation outpost in Silicon Valley, promises that, as unbelievable as it may seem right now, autonomous flying vehicles to transport people are on the horizon, and that they will soon be integrated into the urban infrastructure of cities.
“Many of the technologies needed, such as batteries, motors and avionics are most of the way there,” says Lyasoff, noting that the team’s biggest challenge will be developing reliable sense-and-avoid technology, which is currently unavailable for planes.
Another major challenge will be navigating city regulations, which currently prevent drones without remote pilots to fly over cities. The team is working closely with Skyways Project to address regulatory constraints.
Earlier this year, Airbus Helicopters signed a MoU with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), which will allow the company to test drone parcel delivery on the National University of Singapore’s campus by the middle of 2017. The company will develop the helicopters in collaboration with Singapore’s aviation authority, with hopes that the pilot phase will lead to commercial-scale projects in the city-state. By using Singapore as a testing ground, the team hopes to develop a precedent when it comes to regulatory frameworks for unmanned aircraft system for urban environs.