Lately, self-driving cars and trucks are becoming more mainstream, thanks to Musk’s technological ambitions. Flying planes might be. Next, the aviation industry is currently jumping onboard the idea of pilot-less aircraft.
European aircraft manufacturer Airbus and their California-based advanced projects and partnerships outpost A³ is developing an electric, autonomous air taxi called Vahana.
This tilt-wing, multi-propeller aircraft will be able to take off and land vertically or VTOL in small, tight spaces and fly 50 miles on one battery charge, getting passengers from A to B twice as fast as a car.
The taxi is intended for an urban environment, but there are whisperings of larger autonomous airliners being developed to take passengers far and wide throughout the world.
Airbus rival Boeing even hinted that they were looking into artificial intelligence to pilot planes, with the aim to test the technology as early as next year.
“The basic building blocks of the technology are available,” said Mike Sinnett, Boeing’s vice president of product development, while at the Paris Airshow this past summer.
However, the safety implications are slowing development. The benchmark for Boeing regarding the safety of self-flying planes is the “Miracle on the Hudson” when Captain Chelsey Sullenberger safely landed a US Airways A320 into the Hudson River in New York.
Sinnett stated that safety-wise the plane’s AI would have to match that level of skill. “If it can’t, then we can’t go there,” he said.
What about Vahana? According to the company website, the craft can automatically detect and avoid obstacles and other aircraft.
“A core premise of this project is that full automation and sense-and-avoid technology will allow us to achieve higher safety levels by minimizing human error while allowing more vehicles to share the sky, writes CEO of A³ Rodin Lyasoff on the official website.
In the event of a severe malfunction, Vahana will also deploy a ballistic parachute that can work at low altitudes.
The aim is to have a full-size prototype ready before the end of this year and a productizable demonstrator by 2020.
The latest update on Vahana in July of this year stated that they had already begun full-scale vehicle integration of major components such as the wings, fuselage, avionics, and actuators.
They are currently testing aerodynamically accurate subscale models, which performs self-piloted flight testing and demonstrate both the full-scale flight software and controls architecture. Additionally, autonomous take-offs and landings have been trialed.
Probably the most substantial barrier for a craft like Vahana is the infrastructure built around it, so far we’ve only made urban environments for cars on the ground. Vahana would require building landing pads throughout cities. Paying for a trip on an air-taxi would also cost a pretty penny, try $40 for a 15-minute flight.
“I think to have the aircraft within five years is certainly possible. To have a functioning urban air mobility system in five years, I think that’s too soon. I think ten years is a more likely window,” CAFE (Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency) Foundation executive director Yolanka Wulff told Fast Company.