Airbus promises self-flying electric air taxi by 2020

The company hopes these flying vehicles will solve traffic congestion while making transportation cheaper.

Airbus A3 Vahana rendering

Airbus is developing Vahana, a self-piloting taxi that could carry one or two passengers and help relieve traffic congestion.

Airbus A3

The idea of flying cars buzzing around urban areas has long fascinated people, but safety considerations make that scenario a nightmare. Airbus thinks that taking the human out of the equation can make personal flying vehicles a reality.

Being developed under the project name Vahana, Arne Stoschek from the Airbus A3 advanced technology lab said Tuesday that the company hopes to solve traffic congestion with self-piloting, flying vehicles. Stoschek, the head of autonomous systems at Airbus A3, was speaking at Nvidia's GPU Technology Conference in San Jose.

Traffic congestion in urban areas has become a global problem, not only wasting time for commuters, but also reducing overall productivity, creating pollution and using significant energy. Urban planners cope with congestion by building more roads, which does not necessarily solve the problem and takes up real estate that only sees use during morning and evening rush hours.

"We can't afford not to use the third dimension," Stoschek said in regards to the problem of traffic. Borrowing statistics from Uber, Stoschek points out that a trip from San Francisco to San Jose of 56.9 miles takes about 1 hour and 40 minutes in a car. That same trip using a vertical take-off and landing aircraft would cover 43.3 miles and only take 15 minutes, a huge savings in time. Uber also estimates the cost of such a trip could be only $43 in the near term, and $20 in the long term (which is much less than taking UberX), for example.

Airbus A3 Vahana rendering

Airbus is developing Vahana around a set of practical goals, and will conduct flight tests this year.

Airbus A3

Vahana is built on the idea of an electrically-powered, tilt-rotor aircraft capable of landing at heliports -- removing the need to use airports -- with capacity for one to two passengers. Rather than fantasy, Airbus engineers have worked out specifications for this type of air transport using existing technology. Using batteries, Vahana could travel about 60 miles at about 140 miles per hour. Any improvement in battery density over the next few years would increase Vahana's range.

Stoschek says Vahana will have a full-scale flight test by the end of this year.

The idea of a multitude of human pilots in personal aircraft would not work for a variety of reasons, but most importantly, the FAA requires enough space around each aircraft to make commuting a non-starter. Stoschek thinks this problem can be solved using similar technology being developed for self-driving cars.

Each air taxi would carry camera, radar and lidar sensors to give it a 360 degree sphere of awareness. As with self-driving cars, a computer would process the sensor data and identify obstacles in the path of the air taxi. Stoschek points out that unlike a car, aircraft don't have brakes. The computer would have to figure out how to get around objects like birds or other aircraft. Of course, self-piloting aircraft would likely be in communication with each other, agreeing on complementary paths.

During a presentation, Stoschek showed how his technology can recognize multiple birds in a flock at great distance.

Stoschek admits that current computers require too much power to accomplish self-piloting on a platform like Vahana, where every watt and ounce will be crucial. However, he believes that by the year 2020, hardware and software will advance enough to enable Vahana to take flight, which could greatly change how we get to work.

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