Air Taxis: The future of City Transport

October 26, 2017
Layan Damanhouri

Saudi Gazette

Five years time, air taxis could be a normal sight in large cities. Increasing traffic and congestion in cities are driving engineers at Airbus to work on urban air mobility for commuters.

Ordering an electrical helicopter on demand through an app or riding a single-passenger air vehicle are the future of urban transport, Airbus told reporters at their headquarters in Toulouse, France.

One factor that has made it possible in the digital age is the significant decrease in cost of technologies like memory chips, cameras, drones and batteries.

Another is the increased flow of venture capital into startups in recent years.

The technology trends to make such a revolution in transport possible are autonomy, connectivity, electrification, and digital design manufacturing.

“In congested cities, we see a great need for mobility combined with this technology,” says Mathias Thomsen, General Manager for Urban Air Mobility at Airbus.

This technology development is an opportunity to be put to use in developing short-range vertical flight in crowded cities where commuters can be stuck in traffic for several hours, he added.

Concepts will be launched in the coming months

Two projects are already underway to be demonstrated at the end of this year.

The Vahana is a single-passenger and self-piloted Vertical Take-off and Landing air vehicle that is set to launch at the end of this year.

The CityAirbus is a larger vehicle that can carry up to four passengers and will be launched in a year. It’s designed to be fully autonomous but can also accommodate a pilot if a country’s airspace system does not allow for autonomous flight.

“The two vehicles will demonstrate the possibility of autonomous flight,” Thomsen said. “Then we’ll immediately start building new versions based on how the technology demonstration turns out and our interactions with stakeholders, such as governments, transport and aviation authorities of cities.”

All vehicles are electrically powered and have been developed for a low environmental footprint, cost-efficiency and high volume production, according to Airbus.

Some uncertainties remain

Airbus expects to start flying people within two to three years. It will take five years, however, to be fully operational for certifications to warrant the system is safe and reliable.

Several factors need to be worked on such as infrastructure for helipads, charging stations, batteries, and technical features of the vehicle itself.

The concept vehicles are designed to have a minimum of range for reaching from one end to the other of most of the largest 100 cities of the world. There remain several options to finalize on what the best types of battery are of the vehicles.

In order to be faster than ground transport, engineers are working on the vehicles to travel at an average of 100 to 120 kmph. For flying over highways, it’s possible to reach up to 240 kmph.

Recharge technology is not fully mature but engineers expect the autonomous vehicle to recharge between 10 to 15 minutes after every trip.

Height was not specified by Airbus but revealed that they’re not expected to be high enough to interfere with commercial airplanes but not too low to be noisy on the city.

Could we see autonomous flight before self-driving cars?

Helicopters since the 1960’s haven’t gained much momentum on an average commuter level due to reasons such as cost and safety.

Asked about the risk of accidents for autonomous vehicles, Thomsen told Saudi Gazette: “The problems of accidents are often related to some kind of human error. We think of autonomous vehicles as a safety-enhancing feature as you allow a computer to do it. The question that needs to be solved is how autonomous machine interacts with a non-autonomous machine, just like with cars on the road.”

He added, “As opposed to roads that are filled with passengers, pedestrians, different vehicles, bicycles, it’s been challenging to introduce self-driving cars. We view airspace as a clean base to build a system and a controlled environment. It’s possible autonomous flight to start working before autonomous cars.”

October 26, 2017
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