Airbus is Working on an Autonomous Flying Car

Autonomous urban flying vehicles could resolve increasing traffic congestion.

(Image courtesy of Airbus.)

(Image courtesy of Airbus.)

In a wide-eyed announcement, Airbus has stated that it is developing autonomous flying urban transportation to alleviate the traffic congestion seizing cities across the globe.

According to the company, by the year 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, an increase of 10 percent in urban inhabitants. Citing the megacity of Sao Paolo, Brazil as a harbinger of things to come Airbus says that in 2014 rush hour traffic in the megalopolis wound through 344 kilometers of the city’s streets.

The result of those traffic jams? $31 billion dollars in lost productivity.

Sao Paolo isn’t the only mega city that’s experiencing increasing gridlock. Tokyo, Manilia, Mumbai, Ho Chi Minh City and London have all seen an increase in traffic problems.

In an effort to take commuters off the surface roads, Airbus has tasked A3, its in-house innovation incubator, with developing an autonomous urban flying transportation platform for individual passengers and cargo transport.

Named Vahana, the A3 project seems to already be at a fairly advanced stage as Airbus claims that Vahana flight test will commence by the end of 2017. But as we’ve seen with autonomous cars, building a transportation system that can pilot itself isn’t the easiest task to accomplish. Still A3’s project leader, Ryan Lyasoff, remains confident that Vahana will arrive sooner than many expect.

“Many of the technologies needed, such as batteries, motors and avionics are most of the way there,” said Lyasoff. However, Lyasoff did hedge his confidence a bit, mentioning that sense-and-avoid technology still isn’t available for aircraft but in the same breath stated “That’s one of the bigger challenges we aim to resolve as early as possible”.

As Lyasoff imagines it, the Vahana project would operate similar to ride-sharing applications like Uber and Lyft. Users would use a smartphone to hail an autonomous craft and within short order they’d be spirited to their destination.

“In as little as ten years, we could have products on the market that revolutionize urban travel for millions of people.” Said Lyasoff.

But, even if Airbus can work out all of the engineering kinks that come along with a project of this complexity, there’s one other hurdle that the company will have to cover. Where will the vehicle be field tested?

It’s hard to imagine that a major city would be willing to open its skies to a fleet, or even a handful, of unproven, autonomous flying cabbies.

Maybe the company will be able to find some ruined town in some far off land, or even convince a country like China to allow one of its ghost cities to be the test site for new craft. Either way, there’s going to be some serious cajoling happening if Vahana is to ever be road tested.

Still, Airbus should be applauded for taking the idea of autonomous urban flying transportation seriously. Though the idea seems far off today, it could present a real solution to tomorrow’s traffic problems.

Plus, hoping an autonomous flying transport to a show, party or even work would be incredible.

For more on flying car technology, find out how Lilium aims to make personal home aircraft a reality.