The 1962 futuristic cartoon The Jetsons told us flying cars wouldn't go mainstream until 2062. Airbus isn't planning to wait that long.
By the end of this year, the aerospace giant plans a full-scale demonstration of its CityAirbus. It’s a flying vehicle for up to four passengers that will be battery-operated and autonomous, with vertical take-off and landing. The propulsion units are designed to keep noise levels low as it navigates the world’s urban expanses. Booking will be easy: Passengers will be able order their ride on a smartphone, just as they already do for ground taxis and ride-sharing. Fares aren’t projected to be much higher, although the average urban taxi driver would struggle to reach CityAirbus’ cruising speeds of 120 kilometres-per-hour (75 miles-per-hour).
For people who want more privacy than a shared taxi, Airbus is also developing the single-passenger autonomous and electric urban vehicle coined Vahana. Like the larger CityAirbus, Vahana will be electric and automated, and will have vertical take-off and landing. By taking to the air, Vahana won’t get stuck in traffic, and it should be able to travel much faster than roadways. It’s aimed at every-day use, and Airbus plans to keep its cost around the same level as a car. Vahana isn’t just targeting commuters. It can be fitted as an ambulance, to cut response times to accidents and travel times to hospitals, or to deliver cargo.
Today’s urban planners are facing much stickier traffic problems than the creators of the Jetsons could have imagined. Making it easier to fly above congested roadways can only become more urgent as more of the world’s population moves into megacities, or cities with populations of more than 10 million people. There are currently around 30 megacities globally, with the United Nations predicting there will be more than 40 by 2030. Many of these cities have traffic systems that were poorly planned, or which didn’t foresee the eventual huge growth in populations and cars.
Sometimes, cities expanded in directions that weren’t foreseen, including growing to touch other cities, and which mass-transit didn’t accommodate. Often, widening roadways for more traffic simply isn’t possible, or doing so would make the cities too unliveable for ground-level pedestrians. It can also take years of planning and construction to expand mass-transit infrastructure to match a megacity’s needs. Adding short, urban flight routes to transit options can ease ground congestion, speed emergency travel and open fresh connections to existing mass transit systems.
The shared nature of airborne commuting options can also eliminate one of the biggest drags on scarce available land in cities: the parking garage. A 2011 study from the University of California estimated there were more than 800 million parking spaces, at around 300 square feet each, in the United States alone. That’s more than two for every person in the country. At the same time, the use of automated systems for piloting can ensure that travel routes remain efficient, not just for the individual vehicles, but for air traffic in general. After all, there wouldn’t be much net benefit to simply lifting congestion off the road and into the air. But carefully choreographed urban air traffic can eliminate both accidents and the ‘wrong turns’ that slow travel. Everyday commutes by air may not hit the mainstream right away, but other daily uses for drones are on the cards.
Airbus is already on track to test this year an automated package delivery system using unmanned drones. The project, dubbed Skyways, is a collaboration with National University of Singapore. The drones - autonomous, electric octocopters - will fly packages to their designated stations, where they will be stored in lockers until customers retrieve them. Each drone will have an ‘aerial corridor’ to keep it from interfering with any other airborne traffic. In a city such as Singapore, which has an efficient post office and well-developed transportation networks, drone package delivery may seem more like a novelty than a necessity. But companies often use Singapore as a test bed for new technologies and business models. That can allow a perfected system to roll out faster and with fewer hiccups in locations that aren’t quite as developed.
Many of Asia's cities, such as Jakarta, Bangkok and Manila, have badly congested traffic, where cross-city travel is an hours-long process. An airborne package delivery system could easily save lives by ditching the roads to airlift medical supplies across town. It could also help build businesses, by making it easier to get products to customers without the need for shops or delivery vans. The next test phase for Skyways will aim to deliver packages from Singapore to ships offshore. Later iterations could assist with delivering supplies to disaster-hit regions, where roads may be impassable. Airbus will be central in this shift from ground to air transportation in urban spaces.