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Aerospace innovation: why drive, when you can fly!

Author : Zach Lovering is the Project Executive for Vahana

07 March 2017

Zach Lovering, Project Executive for Vahana, spoke to DPA about the electric, self-piloted aircraft that Airbus plans to be demonstrating by 2020.

Vahana

How often do you find yourself sitting in traffic wishing there was another solution, that your car would just power up and skip over all of the cars in front of you?

By 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. That means traffic jams will only get worse. Not only does this increase driver frustration and take away valuable time that could be better spent completing errands, watching your child’s football game, getting work done, or going for a walk, but traffic takes a significant toll on the environment and city infrastructure. 

This opportunity, amongst other megatrends facing society, was part of the impetus behind Airbus forming A³, its advanced projects and partnership outpost in Silicon Valley, which has a mission to disrupt Airbus and the rest of the aerospace industry before someone else does. 

In early 2016, A³ launched Vahana. Vahana is an electric, VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft that is self-piloted, avoids obstacles, and can carry a single passenger or cargo. A³ is focused on delivering a vehicle that is safe, reliable, and quiet. It envisions it being as diverse as its wheeled counterparts, being used similar to a taxi, but in the air, to quickly and safely transport someone after work to grab dinner with friends or to fulfil more urgent needs such as ambulance services, search and rescue, or as a tool to deploy modular infrastructure in disaster sites. 

Inside Vahana

During the January DLD digital tech conference in Munich, Airbus CEO Tom Enders said, “one hundred years ago, urban transport went underground, now we have the technology wherewithal to go above ground.” Opening up this “third dimension” as a means of daily transportation has immense opportunity and value, saving consumers time, providing a cleaner alternative to gas-powered cars, and “with flying, you don’t need to pour billions into concrete bridges and roads,” continued Enders. 

Infrastructure upkeep is one of the most important, costly, and overlooked obligations that countries today must undertake. Its necessity stems from the fact that a properly kept transportation infrastructure (roads, undergrounds, buses, etc.) allows the freedom of movement that enables economies to thrive. By taking short-range transportation to the skies, we can both alleviate the burden of resources that transportation infrastructure upkeep necessitates and prevent the disruption that upkeep causes. 

As for the aircraft itself, the highest level requirements for designing the aircraft were for a low-cost, single passenger, electric VTOL aircraft that could provide utility to a large number of people. With that in mind, A³ came to the current design (see images), which will take up the same space as about two parking spaces side-by-side. When it comes to speed and altitude A³ think both about regulations and practicality. It anticipates that the speed will be about two to four times faster than the traffic below and that altitude will be about 1,000 feet above the ground. Because of its smaller size, point-to-point travel times will be reduced - no more turning corners, simply lift off and fly in a direct line to your destination - plus, it will be quieter and enable lower-cost composite manufacturing. The aircraft will also be outfitted with sense-and-avoid technology that ensures high levels of safety.

In the future, traveling via Vahana will be provided as a service, accessed perhaps by a mobile app that will send a Vahana to your nearest pickup location. You’ll hop into the vehicle, fasten your seatbelt, confirm take-off, and within minutes be at the destination of your choice. While getting to this fully deployed urban air mobility is likely about five to ten years away, A³ will start test flying a full-scale Vahana this year and will have a productisable demonstrator by 2020.


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