Airbus Helicopters wants to remind the industry that it not only is still in the game for urban air mobility technology, but it has been making progress within its various efforts.
“Innovation is our DNA,” Airbus said to media Feb. 12 during a visit to its headquarters in Marignane, France. “We continuously invest in more connected services, breakthrough technologies and new business models shaping the next business generation.”
Recall the manufacturer’s efforts with CityAirbus, unveiled in August 2016 and aimed at rapidly developing a multi-passenger aircraft to transport people over large, congested cities.
First flight of the demonstrator is expected at the end of 2018, Airbus Helicopters Deutschland and Head of Light and Governmental Programs Wolfgang Schoder told the media Feb. 13 at Airbus’ facility in Donauworth, Germany, where the project is based. Airbus said a subscale model of the fully electric, self-piloted demonstrator will be on display at the company’s booth at Heli-Expo in Las Vegas Feb. 28 to March 1.
In a presentation of some of the details that make up the CityAirbus vehicle, Head of Urban Air Mobility Marius Bebesel described how the team is working on the main feature of the propeller-and-duct system.
Bebesel showed how each of four ducts would include two sets of Siemens SP200D fixed propellers. Concerns that Airbus is working on in the primary duct design mockup include preventing bird strikes and reducing noise.
Also demonstrated in the presentation is how the vehicle would be powered by four lithium-ion batteries that hang suspended from the rearward roof of the vehicle.
And then there’s the single passenger, self-piloted aircraft Vahana by its Silicon Valley outpost A^3. The aircraft completed its first full-scale flight test early February, and Airbus hopes to launch a product demonstrator in 2020.
On the services side of the business, newly integrated into the manufacturer’s portfolio of services is its on-demand helicopter booking platform Voom — also a product of A^3.
“Airbus helicopters has fully integrated Voom as a service and is now expanding its development as part of the strategy of the company to provide new urban air mobility for commuters,” Airbus said.
Voom had been in beta testing since its launch in April 2017 in São Paulo, Brazil. Now Airbus will work to expand the market, the details of which have yet to be revealed, but are expected within the next few months.
What we do know is that Voom’s business model, akin to Uber, will remain a platform to connect helicopter and helipad operators — making the Voom “fleet” a lottery of potentially various aircraft.
It’s a similar service Airbus has implemented in Dallas, Texas, in October. Called Airbus Ride, the operation allows potential riders to schedule helicopter flights to get from certain helipads in the area to various events at AT&T Stadium, like concerts or football games.
Airbus’ moves are based on what looks to be the start of the growing public acceptance of urban air mobility. As Bebesel said, Voom “showed interest for city transport.”
Speaking on electric flying, Schoder sees its application particularly helpful for the medical community.
“When I see the need for medical services within cities, apparently you have very limited possibilities to fly within urban areas,” he said. “Now with the electric helicopter, it will be more possible.”
Schoder said the key to the technology’s future is its integration with infrastructure developments.
He noted how Airbus is currently experimenting with infrastructure for unmanned operations through its project Skyways, which it launched with Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore in February 2016 to develop an urban unmanned air system for air delivery in urban cities. Its first flight occurred during the Singapore Airshow last month.
“The interesting thing will be to integrate all those systems — making decisions to deliver medicine, to deliver a doctor or to pick up a patient and bring them somewhere,” he said.
The challenges Airbus faces in such developments are not unique to the manufacturer, and are those the entire industry is tackling. Bebesel said these include how the operation would actually work in infrastructure, how the vehicle will be designed to function and, of course, battery recharging.