Airbus project Vahana

Techies in Silicon Valley invent high-tech products every day. However, they still do not have a solution for one of their biggest problems: rush hour. In the San Francisco Bay Area, traffic jams are omnipresent. Commuting from Silicon Valley to San Francisco every morning takes an hour and a half, and in the evening it takes just as long to get home. Silicon Valley may pride itself on speed, but during rush hour, everything around the IT Mecca grinds to a halt.

Traffic problems are becoming more acute across the globe as a result of increasing urbanisation, particularly in “megacities” – urban centres with upwards of ten million inhabitants. A good illustration is the Brazilian metropolis Sao Paulo, which set a new record in 2014: on the roads around the city, the rush-hour traffic stretched out for 344 kilometres. According to a study, these huge back-ups in Sao Paulo cost the Brazilian economy at least 31 billion USD a year; another study found that Londoners lose the equivalent of 35 working days per year idling in traffic. The situation is even worse in cities such as Mumbai, Manila, or Tokyo.

In response, Airbus Group experts are looking skywards to develop radical concepts that will relieve urban congestion. Participating in these efforts is A3, the company’s innovation outpost located in the gridlocked Valley. A3 project executive Rodin Lyasoff and his team are actively pursuing a project coined Vahana, an autonomous flying vehicle platform for individual passenger and cargo transport.

Flight tests of the first vehicle prototype are slated for the end of 2017. As ambitious as that sounds, Lyasoff insists that it is feasible. “Many of the technologies needed, such as batteries, motors and avionics are most of the way there,” explains the engineer. However, Vahana will likely also need reliable sense-and-avoid technology. While this is just starting to be introduced in cars, no mature airborne solutions currently exist. “That’s one of the bigger challenges we aim to resolve as early as possible,” says Lyasoff.

Transport service providers are one target group for such vehicles. The system could operate similarly to car-sharing applications, with the use of smartphones to book a vehicle. “We believe that global demand for this category of aircraft can support fleets of millions of vehicles worldwide,” estimates Lyasoff.

At these quantities, development, certification, and manufacturing costs go down. And in terms of market entry, Lyasoff is equally confident: “In as little as ten years, we could have products on the market that revolutionise urban travel for millions of people.” A3 is powering ahead with Vahana and as is typical for Silicon Valley, the company thinks in terms of weeks, not years. Officially underway since February 2016, the project’s team of internal and external developers and partners have agreed on a vehicle design and is beginning to build and test vehicle subsystems.

Test under real conditions

The challenge of flying autonomous vehicles over urban areas is summed up neatly by Bruno Trabel from Airbus Helicopters: “No country in the world today allows drones without remote pilots to fly over cities – with or without passengers.” The engineer leads the Skyways project, which aims to help evolve current regulatory constraints. In February, Airbus Helicopters and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) signed a memorandum of understanding allowing Airbus Helicopters to test a drone parcel delivery service on the campus of the National University of Singapore in mid-2017.

It sounds as if Airbus were planning to become the new Amazon. “Not at all,” says Trabel. “We’ve no intention of competing with the Amazons and DHLs of this world. On the contrary, we see these companies as potential customers.” For the pilot project, Airbus Helicopters is developing an autonomous drone and the overall infrastructure, which is based on an operation management system created by Airbus Defence and Space. The goal of the project is to assess the efficiency and economic effectiveness of such a transport system and provide tangible proof to authorities and the general public that commercial drones can indeed operate safely over urban areas.