Photo courtesy of Airbus
Airbus A³, the advanced projects branch of Airbus Group based in Silicon Valley, is on track to have a full-size prototype of its electric autonomous air taxi, Vahana, take its first flight before the end of this year. Come 2020, the company hopes to launch a product demonstrator. In the midst of the Uber electric VTOL excitement, Airbus has been on the road, sharing Vahana’s progresses, at events including Uber’s Elevate Summit, the 2017 Nvidia GPU Technology Conference (GTC) and the Assn. for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s (AUVSI) Xponential.
Arne Stoschek, head of autonomous systems for Airbus A³, gave a presentation at GTC, updating attendees on computing technologies and impending flight operational challenges. He was also presented during the Uber summit in Dallas at the end of April. Vahana project lead Zach Lovering sat on a panel — which included Uber’s director of engineering for advanced programs, Mark Moore — to tell Vahana’s story during Xponential in Dallas May 10. The program is on track, they said, and electric urban air mobility is a cause to which the company is committed.
The presentations surround a Vahana team announcement of a contract with Portland, Oregon’s FlightHouse Engineering to design and manufacture the composite airframes for the Vahana demonstration vehicles. Although the project is on track, there are several more challenges to overcome before Vahana is fully operational.
Rodin Lyasoff, CEO of A³, was recently quoted by Airbus Magazine, an internal company publication produced by Airbus Group, as stating that “many of the technologies needed, such as batteries, motors and avionics are most of the way there.” However, he noted that Vahana will require the use of sense-and-avoid technology, which he describes as “one of the bigger challenges” that the team needs to resolve.
Regulation is also an obstacle. A³ met with FAA officials during a workshop hosted by AUVSI to discuss two key regulatory challenges, including certification and air traffic management. Currently there is no clear certification path for autonomous passenger aircraft, and current air traffic regulations do not allow for beyond-line-of-sight operations without certain waivers (the FAA is currently facilitating projects to move this regulation along).
During the Uber summit, the FAA and General Aviation Manufacturers Assn. held a workshop on Part 23 certification, which both entities said they could conceive as a certification path for electric VTOL air taxis. That is also a path on which Moore has placed his confidence. But initially, Uber does not plan for participating vehicles to be fully autonomous.