Here in Sri Lanka, we are all familiar with the word “Vaahana” which is Sinhalese for “vehicle”. It is a Sanskrit word that literally means “chariot of the gods” and the word itself or slight variations of it are in common use in several Asian languages such as Sinhala, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Nepali, Punjabi, Tamil, Telegu and Thai with the same meaning. Even the English word “vehicle” is fairly similar. But by next year, the word would be on everybody’s lips right round the world, if Airbus succeeds in effort to build a new kind of “Vaahana”.
This is no ordinary vehicle. Airbus envisions a fully automated flying taxi that takes a cue from the futuristic movies (Fifth Element, anyone?) and sci-fi books that feature flying cars that zoom and swerve in the skies, leaving behind the congestion of the urban sprawls below. The company is working toward making that a reality in the not-too-distant future.
Airbus, commonly known for building airplanes and helicopters, has been working on a flying car since mid-2016. Airbus formally calls it “a self-piloted flying vehicle platform for individual passenger and cargo transport.” If all goes well, it would be the first certified passenger aircraft without a pilot. The project is spearheaded by the company’s A3 division located in Silicon Valley, California.
The first Vahana prototypes are expected to reach for the skies at the end of 2017. CEO Tom Enders expects the company’s single-person transportation vehicle to be airborne by that time - “we are in an experimentation phase, we take this development very seriously”. Project lead Zach Lovering says batteries, motors and avionics technologies are mostly ready to allow the creation of the vehicle in a couple of years.
“The aircraft we’re building does not need a runway, is self-piloted, and can automatically detect and avoid obstacles and other aircraft,” Airbus said. Concept drawings for the Vahana vehicle show an eight-rotor aircraft, which has wings at the front and rear. The company has completed the design work and is working with a number of external partners. There will be around 3-4 years of testing and Airbus hopes to have a production-ready aircraft by 2021, just four years away, barring any unforeseen regulartory problems.
The project, part of his company’s Urban Air Mobility division, envisions people booking flights in the personal flyer using an app, much like Uber, Lyft or Pick Me. The flying taxi is likely to come to your starting point and take you to the destination, as long as it is within its operating range of 200 Km or so.
“Vahana” the flying taxi does have its advantages. As Enders points out, “with flying, you don’t need to pour billions of dollars into concrete bridges and roads”. That is correct – the airspace below 1,000 feet is hardly used and can be used as a “highway” by robotic planes without spending a cent on physical infrastructure, except perhaps data transmitters. The vehicles will be able to communicate with each other and ground based signaling systems so that collisions would not occur.
Given that the air does not have any of the obstacles seen on the ground such as pedestrians, animals and buildings, it will actually be easier to handle flying taxis than conventional ground-based autonomous vehicles. Even now, commercial airliners are in the robotic (autopilot) mode most of the time and mid-air collisions are very, very rare. Not surprisingly, Airbus believes that the “global demand for this category of aircraft can support fleets of millions of vehicles worldwide.” On-demand transport, on the ground and in the air, will also reduce parking problems experienced in most cities.
There are pitfalls too. The flying taxis will have to avoid commercial and consumer drones, which will also be more sophisticated by 2021. Companies such as Amazon are already trialing delivery by drone, which could invade the same airspace. It is also doubtful whether Governments will allow pilotless manned aircraft in the skies as soon as 2021 – if a crash occurs who should be blamed? This is the same question that already dogs autonomous cars and airborne vehicles will compound the problem. Last but not least, how will an ordinary person who is not a qualified person accept riding in an unmanned flying vehicle? To most people, flying in a piloted plane is a nightmare in itself. Just how they would feel if asked to travel in a pilotless aircraft is not difficult to guess. There will naturally be a steep learning curve for most passengers opting to make use of this future service. Airbus will also have to think long and hard about a pricing structure – if the prices are astronomically high, there will be no takers. They can be higher than those of ground taxis but not too high either. Initially, only developed countries will be able to have flying taxis, but like Uber and Lyft, they will trickle down to the developing ones.
The good news is that airbus is not the only company looking to develop personal transport options for the skies. The Chinese Drone company Ehang has created and exhibited a personal flying system (also known as a drone taxi) that could transport people to different locations. The Ehang 184 will initially carry people around Las Vegas after a deal to test the vehicles was struck last year. The AirMule Drone Ambulance which is designed to extract soldiers from the battlefield has also made its first test flight. Jet pack Aviation (JPA) which makes jet packs has also unveiled a personal, manned helicopter. Uber is also in on the game - Uber has trialled on-demand helicopters, the only difference being that they are manned by qualified pilots. Uber has reportedly hired former NASA engineers to develop autonomous flying taxis which it hopes to call “Uber Elevate”. What about aircraft pricing? Uber thinks the price can be brought down to just US$ 200,000 each if 5,000 units can be sold. The cheapest helicopters too are sold for similar prices, but this will be a totally new experience.
Airbus notes that “one hundred years ago, urban transport went underground, now we have the technological wherewithal to go above ground - We are in an experimentation phase, we take this development very seriously”. “On-demand aviation, has the potential to radically improve urban mobility, giving people back time lost in their daily commutes,” says Uber. Indeed, just think about the time you can save by avoiding traffic jams – a journey which takes over hours cars by land can be completed in just 15 minutes in the air, even at a moderate flying speed. It truly is the future of personal transport.