By S.L. Fuller | December 26, 2017
Decades ago, perhaps the general public thought we might all be traveling in flying cars by 2018. While metropolitan highways are still lined with bumper-to-bumper traffic during long rush hours, those types of futuristic aircraft are becoming a reality. 2017 saw several "flying car" startups grab attention. But these five companies have teams of aviation veterans helping them to lead the charge to the future. Check these out and more in R&WI's January 2018 issue.
VTOL made mainstream headlines in 2017, thanks in large part to rideshare giant Uber. After it held an inaugural urban-mobility-focused Elevate Summit in Dallas in April, the company spent the rest of the year spreading the word about its air taxi initiatives. Uber was at R&WI’s Rotorcraft Business and Technology Summit in September talking about its hopes to bring a pilot program to Dallas. A few weeks later, news reports said Uber was is Portugal announcing plans to do the same in Los Angeles in time for the 2028 Olympics. Uber also reportedly tapped NASA to help develop new traffic concepts for robotic flight systems operations.
The addition of Los Angeles brings Uber’s list of target cities to three. Dallas and Dubai are already slated to host pilot runs for the air taxi project in 2020. And the addition of NASA adds to a list of Uber’s official Elevate partners, which includes Bell Helicopter, Aurora Flight Sciences, Embraer, ChargePoint and more.
Aurora has always been a pioneer in autonomy research. Nov. 1, the company announced its optionally piloted Bell Helicopter UH-1H had received an FAA Special Airworthiness Certificate. The helicopter is being developed under a U.S. Navy program. Aurora said the latest certification under FAA Order 8130.34 permits optionally piloted aircraft operation with only a safety pilot required to monitor the controls. The autonomy-enabled UH-1 (AEH-1) is part of the Office of Naval Research’s Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS) program. Aurora added a complete digital flight control system to the decades-old aircraft design. AEH-1 acts as a testbed for Aurora’s technologies, allowing for “rapid” development and testing of rotorcraft autonomy and other technologies, according to the company. The Huey has on board Aurora’s Tactical Autonomous Aerial Logistics System (TALOS) and is the third manned aircraft to which Aurora has given autonomy or robotic-controlled capability.
Recently acquired by Boeing, Aurora has indicated those new resources would bear fruit in the future.
The reason Uber has teamed with OEMs is because the electric VTOL aircraft it envisions using its infrastructure still have yet to be designed, for the most part. Airbus’ Silicon Valley outpost, A3, started in 2017 an on-demand urban mobility network of its own. Voom, however, uses helicopters and their current operators to fly people around. A beta program, Voom launched in São Paulo, Brazil. The concept had a short trial run in the same location in 2016 during a partnership with Uber. Voom works similarly: The user enters the starting and ending address and is then matched with the nearest helipad. Then, the user selects a preferred boarding time and books the flight. Then, all the user has to do is show up 30 minutes prior to boarding. All operators in the Voom network are RBAC 135 air taxi companies. (Voom’s CEO also spread the word about the project during the Rotorcraft Business and Technology Summit.)
That’s not to say, though, that Airbus didn’t make headlines with future aircraft of its own. A3’s Vahana prototype aircraft is set to make its first flight before the end of 2017 (it had not yet happened at press time). An electric, autonomous vertical takeoff and landing, passenger-carrying future aircraft concept, Vahana went from conceptual drawings to ready for flight in just over a year. A full-scale Vahana arrived at its Pendleton Hangar at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport, announced in November. The flight test team had already demonstrated its first end-to-end flight test simulation.
Airbus Helicopters talked up two more of its futuristic projects during the Paris Air Show in June: its newly revealed Rapid And Cost-Effective Rotorcraft (or Racer) and the CityAirbus air taxi. The high-speed Racer is part of the European Union’s Clean Sky 2 research program to develop cutting-edge technology aimed at reducing aircraft CO2 gas emissions and noise levels. The Racer’s operational concept includes shutting down one engine in cruise flight to increase efficiency and fuel burn as well as aerodynamics, since the helicopter’s twin pusher props would provide thrust in the crew stage and its boxed-wing configuration would provide substantial lift. The 200-volt, direct-current generator would enable that performance by ensuring a fast restart should the second engine be needed. (It also might provide additional power for "connected" services like streaming video in the cabin and advanced flight management capabilities in the cockpit.)
The design of CityAirbus’ mockup is notable for the shrouds around its four main rotors, part of the manufacturers’ efforts to reduce the aircraft noise signature (particularly in the range of noise admissions that are particularly irritating to human physiology). CityAirbus also will use lessons of Airbus’ Blue Edge project, which built on the research of the French and German agencies ONERA and DLR to develop reduced noise-signature, high-efficiency rotor blades. An added element of the aircraft's noise-mitigation capabilities lay advanced integration of its flight controls and power-management systems.
Airbus plans to begin full-scale “iron bird” systems integration tests of CityAirbus this year and conduct unmanned flight tests next year. Its current goal is to conduct the first flight of Racer in 2020.
One futuristic aircraft that is available to preorder right now is XTI Aircraft Co.’s TriFan 600. In February, former AgustaWestland North America executive Robert J. LaBelle joined the company as its CEO. From then on, XTI kept making sale announcements. Following an appearance at the Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show, XTI received more than 60 orders under its presales program. XTI said it also garnered “several more large investors.” This added to orders received during the Paris Air Show and the National Business Aviation Association’s convention.
In October, XTI said it had begun to assemble a scaled test version of the ducted lift-fan aircraft. The company hoped to fly it within a year. Using a scaled version also would save money, he said. Testing of full aircraft systems would await completion of the first full-scale prototype, which LaBelle said would start as soon as additional investments were secured.