Project Vahana: Airbus' passenger delivery drone takes flight

Airbus's electrical passenger drone is a radical departure from everything you thought was integral to the European plane manufacturer:

No jets, no fossil fuels, and no pilot.

The project - codenamed Vahana - reached a milestone last month with test flight 66.

Since then it has delivered a further 12 successful missions.

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Taking off vertically, accelerating to 160 km-per-hour, before slowing for a soft landing - the test flight has already proved the project has serious propulsion. Perhaps enough to take the European aerospace company in a new direction.

Vahana: The self-piloted eVTOL is a huge departure for Airbus. Photo / Supplied, VahanaAero
Vahana: The self-piloted eVTOL is a huge departure for Airbus. Photo / Supplied, VahanaAero

The company announced via the Medium blogging website that Vahana has already accomplished "everything we set out to achieve when we began our flight test campaign."

Zach Lovering, VP of Urban Air Mobility for Airbus, published the article along with an exhilarating video of the eight-propeller aircraft flying over the landscape of Oregon, in the USA.

"'In the video, you'll see Vahana take off vertically and then accelerate forward, much like in other videos we've shared," Lovering explains

"This time, however, Vahana's wing and canard rotate to the full cruise configuration as the aircraft speeds up to 90 knots (160 kmph).

"Once the vehicle reaches cruising speed, the transition is complete and the vehicle begins to decelerate preparing for its descent and skids down."

After just two years' development the aircraft enjoyed its first test flight in February 2018.

Since then, it's begun looking like a viable option for passenger transport.

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The company's self-imposed deadline of 2020 for producing model fit for public use is looking very realistic. Particularly having seen the video.

Multi-directional engines mean Vahana can pick-up and drop-off passengers without a runway. Photo / Supplied
Multi-directional engines mean Vahana can pick-up and drop-off passengers without a runway. Photo / Supplied

The eight-propellered, single-seated vehicle looks unlike anything previously produced by Airbus.

Created by Airbus' research branch A3, the real paradigm-altering potential of the robotic taxi is the 'vertical takeoff and landing' (VTOL) system.

Multi-directional propeller engines mean it can pick-up and drop-off passengers without a runway.

"Our goal is to democratise personal flight by leveraging the latest technologies such as electric propulsion, energy storage, and machine vision," said Lovering.

"Our first flights mark a huge milestone for Vahana as well as the global pursuit of urban air mobility."

At the beginning of the month, taxi company Uber unveiled their own aspirations for a drone-like flying taxi at the Uber Elevate Summit in Washington.

The transport tech company announced that it had plans to trial a fleet of flying taxis in Melbourne, Dallas and Los Angeles from as early as 2020.

However, with aerospace engineering firms such as Airbus already demonstrating viable passenger drones, Uber's flying taxi may not be a pie-in-the-sky idea after all.

Airbus: We're ready for takeoff, are you?

Speaking to the Associated Press's Angela Charlton last week, one of aerospace company's top bosses said Airbus was already working with regulators to get the ideal off the ground.

The chief salesman for Airbus says his company already has the technology to fly passenger planes without pilots at all — and is working on winning over regulators and travelers to the idea.

Christian Scherer also said in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday that Airbus hopes to be selling hybrid or electric passenger jets by around 2035.

Airbus CCO, Christian Scherer, hopes to be selling hybrid or electric passenger jets by 2035. Photo/Michel Euler, AP
Airbus CCO, Christian Scherer, hopes to be selling hybrid or electric passenger jets by 2035. Photo/Michel Euler, AP

While the company is still far from ready to churn out battery-operated jumbo jets, Scherer said Airbus already has "the technology for autonomous flying" and for planes flown by just one pilot.

"This is not a matter of technology — it's a matter of interaction with the regulators, the perception in the traveling public," he told The Associated Press.

"When can we introduce it in large commercial aircraft? That is a matter we are discussing with regulators and customers, but technology-wise, we don't see a hurdle."

Several manufacturers are presenting unmanned aircraft at the Paris Air Show, primarily for military purposes — and some are also proposing pilotless "air taxis" of the future.

When it comes to autonomous passenger jets, safety is an obvious concern. It's an issue that is on many minds after two deadly crashes of the Boeing 737 Max jet that have implicated problematic anti-stall software.

Airbus: Several manufacturers are presenting unmanned aircraft at the Paris Air Show. Photo / Getty Images
Airbus: Several manufacturers are presenting unmanned aircraft at the Paris Air Show. Photo / Getty Images

Scherer said the crashes "highlighted and underlined the need for absolute, uncompromising safety in this industry, whether from Airbus, Boeing or any other plane."

While he said Airbus' sales strategy hasn't changed as a result of the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, "there is a capacity need that materialised as a result of this, and naturally you have airlines that are frustrated over capacity, that are looking for answers."

Airbus announced several orders Monday as the air show kicked off, while Boeing had an aenemic day as it works to win back trust from customers.

Scherer forecast continued growth in the aviation industry after several boom years, predicting the world will need at least 37,000 new aircraft in the next 20 years, especially in Asia — and that eventually the whole industry will stop creating emissions and "decarbonise."