Ever been stuck in traffic and wished you could just levitate and fly over the crawling cars? Flying cars of various sorts entered the popular imagination more than five decades ago. Think “The Jetsons.”
And now, a division of aerospace giant Airbus is getting ready to test a pilotless flying air taxi.
An Airbus outpost in Silicon Valley—known as A^3 or “A-cubed”—is currently assembling the first prototypes of a single seat, electric, self-flying shuttle craft called “Vahana", an allusion to Hindu mythology and flying carpets.
Project executive Zach Lovering said the airframes will be shipped up to Oregon probably starting in October to begin flight testing in November at Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton.
"It's kind of the pivotal time where you have real hardware coming in. It’s the first time people are seeing these parts being bolted together,” Lovering said. “Today we have two full scale aircraft in our shop."
Airbus enlisted Oregon companies early on for design and manufacturing help. Portland-based FlightHouse Engineering designed the airframe, whose structures were primarily manufactured at Composites Universal Group in Warren, Oregon, and Decavo in Hood River.
Uber in the sky
Lovering does not foresee this personal aircraft being parked in your driveway. You would probably order it like a taxi or ride-hailing service to escape urban congestion.
“The idea is that you would call it up through an app and go to the nearest takeoff site,” he said. “In this case, we'll start off with helipads and existing infrastructure before we expand to more modernized infrastructure."
The aircraft takes off vertically, transitions to horizontal flight and lands vertically on a helipad. Paired sets of tilting wings fitted with a total of eight props jut out of the carbon fiber passenger compartment. Vahana has an estimated range around 40 miles (50-70 km) on a single charge for the prototype.
"While you're on the way to the aircraft, it is doing all the pre-flight checks automatically,” Lovering said. “It is communicating with air traffic control to give its flight plan. Then you get in the vehicle, put your seat belt on, confirm that you are ready to takeoff and it flies you right across traffic."
Unlike on the ground, Airbus said there is plenty of room in the urban sky.
"I can't see anything more exciting than... being able to have a vehicle that gets you to your destination in 15 minutes, not an hour or an hour and a half. Then you get that hour of your life back," Lovering said in an interview at a UAS conference in Bend, Oregon. "I think that is going to have a profound impact on the future of transportation."
Lovering estimated the cost to the user per ride would be "on par with a taxi" fare over the same distance.
Getting from first flight to mainstream option
An Airbus subcontractor has leased a hangar and mobile command center to do flight testing at Pendleton's airport. Northeast Oregon offers wide open, uncongested airspace, an Federal Aviation Administration-approved unmanned aircraft test range and a new, taxpayer-funded hanger built with this client's needs in mind.
Pendleton UAS Test Range Manager Darryl Abling hopes the Vahana project becomes the centerpiece for a new industry cluster of unmanned vehicle testing and development.
"You know in the flight test community, if you're lucky enough to have a first flight in your career, that's considered a big deal,” Abling said. “To get a first flight of an aircraft like this that is truly revolutionary is huge. So we are absolutely excited."
There are a lot of steps between first flight and seeing fleets of robo-air taxis over West Coast cities. For starters, the FAA has to decide it's safe.
Then there's the problem of battery weight and capacity. Even assuming further advances, electric batteries look impractical for all but helicopters and drones in the near term, according to aeronautical analyst Bjorn Fehrm of Leeham Company.
And then there's the issue of consumer acceptance. The robo-air taxi would follow preset flight routes but could deviate if it detects a hazard. Even so, Fehrm , an ex-fighter pilot, would hesitate to get into a pilotless aircraft.
"You would have to convince me a lot. I would probably have to take a few drinks before I would step into this air taxi," Fehrm said with a hearty chuckle from his home office near Nice, France.
Competition in the flying taxi market
Lovering says a two-passenger variant eventually may be the primary production model for the Vahana line. Airbus envisions additional potential uses as "an urban medevac unit" or cargo transport for military or commercial users in remote regions or urban centers.
Lovering said the roughly 1,600-pound prototype will seek FAA certification in the light airplane category. He anticipates the certification process taking about three years.
"Fundamentally, we're not designing a drone. We're designing a human carrying, safety-rated vehicle," he said.
Airbus has two other initiatives revolving around urban air mobility—the CityAirbus and Skyways projects—being developed in Germany and France. CityAirbus is a four-passenger, electric helicopter and the cargo-carrying Skyways fits in the drone delivery category.
The Vahana project has a direct competitor in Uber Elevate. The new division of the ride-hailing company envisions a demonstration fleet of flying taxis to take off in Dubai and Dallas-Fort Worth in 2020.
Industry trade journal Aviation Week & Space Technology identified 20 different teams around the world working to develop electric VTOL aircraft for the urban commuting market. The developers range from major global aerospace companies such as Airbus, Embraer and Bell Helicopters to previously unknown startups in Russia, Germany and Israel.
‘A start of a new way of doing it’
The Boeing Company is also dipping a toe into the electric aircraft arena, but it's not descending to the robo-air taxi level. Boeing along with JetBlue Airways recently invested in a Kirkland, Washington, startup called Zunum Aero.
Zunum is designing 10- to 50-seat short-haul passenger planes. They would be hybrid electric-powered at launch, and eventually 100 percent electric, according to a company spokeswoman.
Zunum is targeting the early 2020s as an in-service date.
Ferhm holds little hope for electrifying the propulsion of larger regional airliners, but he foresees environmentally-friendly, battery-driven electric aircraft in the ten seater category in limited use in about 10 years.
"Your range is just a fraction of a normal aircraft range," Fehrm added. "But you know, Seattle to Spokane -- little commutes or routes -- it could make sense. It wouldn't be a good business case, but it is a start of a new way of doing it."