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WHAT'S AIRBUS UP TO IN EVTOL AND AUTONOMOUS FLIGHT, POST VAHANA?
With the Vahana technology demonstrator programme having ended at the close of 2019, what are the teams at Airbus Urban Mobility and Acubed Venures up to now?
It's first worth recapping a little on what Vahana was and what the US-based team at Acubed achieved with their first eVTOL aircraft. One of the first projects out of the European giant's Silicon Valley innovation centre it remains their only major hardware initiative to date.
The objective was to design and build a fully operational electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft or eVTOL, and in this sense the tilt-wing aircraft can be considered a success. With an all-electric system of propulsion the aircraft featured a unique system of batteries, inverters and actuators and flew 138 times totalling some 500 miles of flight and over 13 airborne hours.
Vahana also featured some key 'self-piloting' technologies including a real-time detect-and-avoid system (a key aspect of autonomous flight) which involved the development of novel flight control software integrated with an array of sensors - this project was considered so successful in sensing and avoiding obstacles both in the air and on the ground that the team behind it are now running their own project at Acubed called Wayfinder (more on which below).
One of the project leads was Zach Lovering, now Vice President of Urban Air Mobility Systems at Airbus - you can read some of his reflections on the Vahana programme here, where it's noted that:
Although precise timelines for the future vehicle are still to be determined, work on the new design has already begun. Airbus Urban Mobility is tasked with taking the lead on this front.
AIRBUS URBAN MOBILITY
Vahana helped Airbus begin to understand the business case for an eVTOL aircraft and the launch of the Airbus Urban Mobility group within the company in mid-2018 can be seen as one direct result of the programme. Work on issues such as certification, infrastructure and community acceptance of new eVTOL vehicles will continue in this business unit. The team includes:
Eduardo Dominguez-Puerta - Head of Urban Air Mobility at Airbus
Joerg P. Mueller - Head of Programs and Strategy
Zach Lovering - Vice President of Urban Air Mobility Systems
Travis G Mason - Vice President for Certification and Regulatory Affairs
Isabel Del Pozo de Poza - Head of Airbus Unmanned Traffic Management / UTM
Vincent Loubière - Director City integration and Infrastructure Development
Clement Monnet - CEO at Voom
Airbus Urban Mobility is split into different teams each with a different focus areas:
Unmanned Traffic Management / Airbus UTM - more on which in a separate post
Infrastructure - design and certification of vertipads, digital 'smart city' infrastructure solutions
City Integration - focusing on the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC) a European Commission project on which Airbus is leading
Voom - an on-demand helicopter booking platform incubated by Acubed currently operational in Mexico City, São Paulo, the Mayan Riviera and San Francisco Bay Area which sees the manufacturer get a foothold in the operational side of UAM for the first time
All of which suggests that Airbus has a view of a multimodal mobility system quite distinct from today's traditional commercial aviation industry. We're likely to see a blurring of the lines between aircraft manufacturers and aircraft operators in aviation much as we are seeing car makers dip their toes in the water of providing mobility services with in-house / spun-out / acquired agile teams more akin to start-ups than the conglomerates behind them.
Given the challenges in linking cities and regions together in a sustainable way with electrified transport vehicles it should come as no surprise that the regulatory clout and experience, not to mention the deep pockets of capital and large pools of talent possessed by the likes of Airbus are well suited to the sort of envisioned infrastructure-scale change air taxi operations will require. A start-up company will take a long time to amass the lobbying power of an international corporate behemoth like Airbus and it'll be necessary to get local, regional and national governments on-side if Urban Air Mobility services are to be successfully rolled out at the scale required to make them commercially viable. And then of course there's the capital required to launch large-scale public engagement programmes which will be essential if people are to accept eVTOL aircraft flying them around and / or over their heads at high frequency and low altitudes.
As one eVTOL technical demonstrator was retired the test programme for Airbus' second is just getting into full swing. The all-electric multicopter design was first verified as viable with over 100 flights of a sub scale prototype before the full-scale four-seat sized passenger aircraft demonstrator was built.
The 2020 flight test programme is taking place in Germany where the aircraft will be remotely piloted. The 8 fixed-pitch propellers can propel the aircraft at up to 120 kph with the 110kWh battery pack providing a range of under 100km. With no lift-creating wing surfaces the aircraft will suffer from similar limitations to traditional rotary aircraft (helicopters) in terms of efficiency and such an architecture might preclude the aircraft architecture from the Uber Elevate programme for example. But as with Vahana Airbus is clear that this is a technical demonstrator and not a production aircraft. You can see video of the first untethered test flight in Donauwörth, Germany below:
THE NEXT AIRBUS EVTOL?
So if Vahana's single-seat tilt-wing architecture isn't being pursued and CityAirbus' straight multicopter design isn't slated for production either, what can we expect next from Airbus? And why is it taking so long to lock-down a final eVTOL design for commercial service when myriad start-ups seem to be racing ahead of the world's preeminent aviation duopoly of Airbus and their arch rivals Boeing?
As Zach Lovering notes here:
...I can’t give a date for when you can expect to see the next Airbus electric vertical takeoff vehicle, [but] I can tell you the design has already been worked on over the past year. Once that campaign is complete we’ll be able to take the team’s final learnings and apply them to the next vehicle. This will include considerations around how many passengers the aircraft will transport as well as the final vehicle configuration (tilt-wing, multirotor, or otherwise)...
Our money would be on the final design being something more akin to the hybrid multicopter / fixed-wing architecture we're seeing some convergence around amongst leading UAM players - you can get an overview of all the Key Players in the Urban Air Mobility market in our story here.
With regards to timing it's a fair bet that Airbus are in as close a dialogue with EASA as anyone, and it might prove very shrewd to have waited until 2020 to unveil their next eVTOL design as this is when we expect the agency to announce more details on their regulatory criteria for such vehicles. The so-called 'regulatory wall' coming down in the form of the Accepted Means of Compliance (AMC) for EASA's VTOL Special Condition might just prove insurmountable for Airbus' competitors without radical back-to-the-drawing-board design revisions - you can find more detail on the emerging picture for VTOL aircraft certification in our story here.
WAYFINDER AND AUTONOMOUS FLIGHT
Both the Vahana and CityAirbus technical demonstrators have incorporated some degree of autonomous flight technology, but Airbus are far from solely focused on eVTOL applications of the tech. The in-service A350 commercial airliner demonstrated a fully autonomous take-off at Toulouse-Blagnac airport in France as recently as December 2019:
The A350 Airbus’ Autonomous Taxi, Takeoff & Landing (ATTOL) project makes heavy use of image recognition as can be seen in the video. Anyone filling out a website Captcha photo mosaic to prove they're 'not a robot' will be familiar with the sorts of tagging tasks being undertaken by the autonomous car industry for some time now - training Machine Learning (ML) algorithms to better recognise everything from buses to bridges and traffic lights.
This same technology is being implemented in aircraft, and image recognition in aviation will need to go through a similar process of learning what on-airport symbols mean, identifying other aircraft and birds in the sky and on the ground and taking relevant, safe decisions on what the vehicle should do as a result. Programming in the basics of Air Law and accepted navigation practices is relatively easy compared to the unusual edge case scenarios of a seagull heading towards a rotor on take-off, windsocks veering around in turbulent winds or runway markings partially obscured by rain, ice or snow.
These sorts of problems are exactly what the Wayfinder team at Acubed are working on, led by Chief Engineer of the group Cedric Cocaud:
The team's efforts in autonomy are undoubtedly being leveraged across the family of Airbus products, so we should expect all future Airbus aircraft to have some ability to perceive and react to their environments environments, as technology, pilot training and regulations permit.