Airbus flying cars accelerate city transport revolution
Transport systems in cities worldwide face a major challenge in ensuring the long-term mobility of their citizens.
According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ World Urbanisation Prospects report, the percentage of the world’s population living in urban areas is expected to hit 66 per cent (of approximately 7 billion people) by 2050 up from 54 per cent in 2014. It may not be enough for transport infrastructure to simply increase.
With this in mind, several firms, large and small, are rushing to bring personal aerial transport solutions, in other words flying cars, to market. These autonomous vehicles differ from previous efforts, which were basically road cars with wings strapped on the roof, as they feature an array of battery powered rotors enabling them to lift off vertically without the need for a runway.
Dubai, which is nothing if not ambitious, in February announced it had successfully carried out test runs of the one-person, Chinese-built electric Ehang 184 flying car, or autonomous urban aerial vehicle (AAV) designed to take mass transit skywards. The craft was, according to the emirate’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), successfully flown across the city.
The Ehang co-founder Derrick Xiong says of the Dubai vehicle: “Passengers don’t need to learn how to fly it, they don’t need get to a pilot’s licence. They just need to press a button and then it vertically takes off, flies from point A to point B, and lands.”
But Ehang is not the only firm looking to take flying cars to the commuting public. Big-name players such as Airbus are investing multimillions to develop their own AAVs.
The European aerospace major is working on a number of aerial vehicles including the Vahana flying car project it started early last year.
“Vahana is self-piloted, eliminating any need for a chauffeur or requirement of a pilot’s licence,” Zach Lovering, the project executive for Vahana, tells The National.
And there is a solid commercial reasoning behind Airbus’ developments, Mr Lovering says. “The current global annual revenue for express delivery, taxi and limousine, and remote sensing [scanning of the Earth from the air] is north of US$160 billion. The global demand for air taxis is well above 10 billion trips annually, which can support fleet sizes in the millions.
“Even addressing a small fraction of the total market will result in high production rates. Vahana is positioned to make the case for a new generation of aerial vehicles and nurture an ecosystem that will help enable the vertical cities of the future.”
To use the Airbus AAV “commuters will request Vahana by using a mobile app, and the aircraft will utilise dedicated spaces for take-off and landing such as helipads or ‘vertiports’,” Mr Lovering says.
“While the passenger is on their way to their local vertiport, the aircraft will clear its flight path with air traffic control and perform all preflight safety checks.
“Once at the vertiport, the passenger will buckle up, confirm that they are ready for take-off,” he says.
“Vahana will then safely and quickly transport passengers to the vertiport nearest to their destination.”
Mr Lovering says Airbus’ ambition is to utilise airspace to relieve traffic congestion at ground level. “Vahana intends to open up urban airways by developing the first certified electric, self-piloted vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) passenger aircraft.”
The AAV is being developed alongside Airbus’ partners in Silicon Valley, and “the project is progressing towards a full-scale test flight by the end of 2017”, says Mr Lovering.
“We’ll have a productisable demonstrator in 2020 and have built several sub-scale vehicles that are actively being used to test our flight controls and vehicle performance,” he adds.
Mr Lovering says the Vahana is likely to be sold to fleet operators rather like how traditional taxi companies buy their car fleets today.
“We envision that Vahana will be provided as a service and expect it to be a cost-comparable and faster alternative to that of ride-sharing services today,” he says, although he adds, “getting to fully deployed urban air mobility is likely about 10 years away”.
Another global outfit with its eyes on the flying car revolution is the taxi-hailing company Uber with its Elevate project, although it is not actually developing its own airborne vehicle.
“We are still at the research stage on how a VTOL network would work,” an Uber spokesman tells The National. “A more important issue at this stage is making sure VTOLs are safe.
“We believe VTOL aircraft at minimum need to be far safer than driving a car on a fatalities per-passenger-mile basis,” says the spokesman, who declines to be named.
“In addition, we believe that a successful, optimised on-demand urban VTOL operation will necessitate a significantly higher frequency and airspace density of vehicles operating over metropolitan areas simultaneously. In order to handle this exponential increase in complexity, new ATC [air traffic control] systems will be needed.”
Asked whether an Uber flying car would be piloted by humans, the spokesman says: “Again this is still early days but we are not envisioning that passengers would control VTOLs,” adding “We don’t have an estimate on [market] value.
“However, we do believe that down the line the greatest asset Elevate has is the potential to transform transportation within major cities like Dubai, reducing congestion and dramatically improving commute times.”
As Uber says, with any of the new flying cars, safety is the biggest concern and extends to both the flying cars and the automated systems controlling them.
Advanced artificial intelligence (AI) is needed to fly large numbers of autonomous aircraft without crashing them into one another, points out the US journal, American Scientific.
Carrying people from points A to B seems simple enough, but even the best AI struggles with surprises: “What, for example, would a drone do if a landing area suddenly became unavailable?” asks Sanjiv Singh, a Carnegie Mellon University robotics researcher and the chief executive of Near Earth Autonomy, a start-up developing intelligent flight systems.
For Dubai’s Ehang project, Etisalat contributed to the test run in its capacity as a prime network provider, according to the RTA chief Mattar Al Tayer.
“The 4G data network is used in communication between the [vehicle] and the ground control centre. The company had also provided the support needed to ensure the continued communication between the[Ehang] and the control centre through M2M and LTE technologies.”
But instead of leaping to fully automated flying passenger cars, Mr Singh suggests first testing the necessary AI in unmanned cargo runs. Early passenger services might include pilots assisted by AI co-pilots – a “mixed mode” approach that Mr Singh helped to develop for the US military’s Transformer project (which morphed into Lockheed Martin’s Ares project) to build a drone that could carry cargo or wounded soldiers.
Nevertheless, while the technological challenges can be overcome, says Marilyn Smith, an associate director of the Vertical Lift Research Center of Excellence at Georgia Institute of Technology, regulation is also a hurdle. “I think the big roadblock is the regulatory infrastructure that has to be put into place” to ensure safety, she says
In this regards, too, Dubai may be ahead of the curve. “Dubai Civil Aviation Authority was a partner in our trials defining the safety criteria required, issuing the permits for trial and inspecting the vehicle,” according to Mr Al Tayer.
Contacted by The National for an update on the Ehang plan, the RTA spokesman Fiona Chantelle D’Cunha says: “Most of the information requested at this moment is yet too early to mention.”
And it is early days, says Mike Hirschberg, the executive director of the American Helicopter Society International, an organisation that promotes VTOL technology. “But,” he adds, “20 or 30 years from now life may be a little like [the US TV cartoon] The Jetsons where you take advantage of the third dimension [the air] and have much more mobility, especially in urban close quarters where ground transportation is gridlocked.”
Some firms involved in the push in to taking flying cars to the masses are surprisingly secretive. One such is the US-based Zee.Aero. The company, along with its affiliate Kitty Hawk, is backed by the billionaire Larry Page, the founder of Google. But that is where the official story ends. According to multiple reports, none of the employees at either operation are allowed to discuss the project publicly. In addition, when Mr Page himself resided in a purpose-built luxury apartment above Zee.Aero’s facilities, he was only referred to by staff as “Gus” – an acronym for the “guy upstairs”.
When contacted by The National, a Zee.Aero spokesman would only say: “As of now, we are not in dialogue with press/media. We will let you know when that changes.”
Local media say Zee.Aero now employs close to 150 people. Its operations have expanded to an airport hangar in Hollister, south of Mountain View, California where a pair of prototype aircraft takes regular test flights. The company also has a manufacturing facility on Nasa’s Ames Research Center campus at the edge of Mountain View. Mr Page has spent more than US$100 million on Zee.Aero, say two of people familiar with the company.
Last year a second Page-backed flying-car start-up, Kitty Hawk began operations and registered its headquarters to a two-storey office building near to Zee’s offices. Kitty Hawk’s staffers, sequestered from the Zee.Aero team, are working on a competing design. Its president, according to 2015 business filings, was Sebastian Thrun, the former chief of Google’s self-driving car programme and the founder of its research division Google X.
Still, whether in secret or out in the open, Mr Hirschenberg says the urban aerial transport tide cannot be turned back.
“This is not your father’s flying car,” he says, referring to previous efforts that required flying cars to have access to a runway to take off. “This is really serious work – and it’s going to happen.”
In Dubai it may happen sooner rather than later. “The future is now in the making. Our talk about autonomous vehicles has become a reality,” said Mr Al Tayer.
“The RTA is making every effort to start the operation of the AAV in July 2017.”
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Updated: April 11, 2017 04:00 AM