Airbus Vahana

Airbus aims to fly a full-size prototype of the Vahana, an autonomous vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft for personal use, before the end of 2017. Image via Airbus

APEX Insight: Airbus and Uber are veering toward autonomous vertical takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) aircraft, but must first perfect their use of ultralight materials and artificial intelligence, and obtain regulatory approval.

March 1926 Popular Science article titled “Folks Who Fly Their Own Airplanes” discussed the private use of aircraft for daily personal journeys. The notion of the flying car – or, more accurately, very small personal aircraft – has been around for a long time, and the sci-fi dream is now within reach.

Yesterday’s Dream of Tomorrow

Sky Innovations, made up of some forward-thinking Boeing employees, unveiled the Sky Commuter prototype in 1990. Evoking the stylings of early Battlestar Galactica, the Sky Commuter had everything but an engine. Alas, Sky Innovations burned brightly yet briefly, leaving only a prototype behind as it vanished into the footnotes of aviation history. That Sky Commuter prototype sold at auction for just over $70,000 last year.

Drone technology is nudging the notion of the flying car closer to reality, though: distributing lift between multiple rotors makes it easier to fly via electric power. Efficiency is key for commuting aircraft, so they don’t just flop down onto the patio, disrupting your late-morning coffee.

As batteries are getting lighter and more capacious, materials technology is also improving. The stuff from which we build both the interior and exterior of an aircraft is getting lighter and stronger. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence is getting smarter. When whizzing through the cityscape, obstacle detection and avoidance have to be on point. This is a key blocker between us and a Jetsons-style future: Flying cars can only become viable once we’ve reliably solved the self-driving conundrum.

Airbus’ “Air Car”

Through its A³ subsidiary, Airbus is designing an autonomous vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft for personal use.  Unlike the Harrier jets of yore, the Vahana is an octocopter. As Rodin Layoff, CEO of Airbus’ subsidiary A³, wrote in a blog post, the team is going full throttle: “The aircraft we’re building doesn’t need a runway, is self-piloted, and can automatically detect and avoid obstacles and other aircraft. Designed to carry a single passenger or cargo, we’re aiming to make it the first certified passenger aircraft without a pilot. We aim to fly a full-size prototype before the end of 2017, and to have a productizable demonstrator by 2020.”

“We aim to fly a full-size prototype before the end of 2017, and to have a productizable demonstrator by 2020.” – Rodin Layoff, A³

Meanwhile, Germany’s e-volo scoffs at a mere eight rotors, arguing that 18 is the magic number. At any rate, Tesla is proving that the vehicle is nothing without the infrastructure to support it.

Making an Uber-Convincing Case for Personal VTOL

In a 99-page white paper titled “Elevate,” Uber lays out the case for flying cars, especially in traffic-choked metropolitan areas like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sydney: “Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently, urban air transportation will use three-dimensional airspace to alleviate transportation congestion on the ground.”

Uber flying taxis

In a 99-page white paper titled “Elevate,” Uber envisions a future where on-demand urban air transportation is a reality. Image via Uber

A network of landing pads and charging stations would be far less infrastructure-intensive than a network of roads, but the management of urban airspace as well as vehicle parameters is a major impediment to launch. Considering the FAA’s inability to pass drone regulations before drones themselves evolved into smaller and more nimble forms – even as regulatory bodies embrace UAVs – expecting quick regulation around swarms of flying cars would be unrealistic. After all, the FAA is yet to certify a single civilian VTOL aircraft, never mind a network of them. Still, the FAA sees on-demand VTOL on the horizon, and has teamed up with NASA to explore it.