Traffic congestion is the curse of modern day transportation. Around the world ever-expanding cities grind to a halt as more and more cars are produced for roads with no space to drive or park them on. How many of us, when stuck in a traffic jam, late for work, a meeting or flight, have wished that we could fly out of that traffic jam and across the sky to our destination? Well that wish may be about to become true very soon. The first self-piloted flying cars will be flying before the end of this year.
A plethora of companies such as e-volo, Joby Aviation, Zee.Aero, Aurora Flight Sciences and NASA are all working on various ”passenger drones”, however the most notable is the Airbus ‘Vahana’ project. CEO of the A3 by Airbus company which develops the project is Rodin Lyasoff. He explained: “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” This may seem ambitious, but Rodin says that many of the technologies needed are mostly developed already.
Battery safety and energy density are now adequate for airborne applications. Low-cost, reliable avionics are becoming broadly available and mature obstacle detection and avoidance technology can enable safe aircraft take-off and landing, and provides reliable collision avoidance in flight. Recent advances in automated composite manufacturing and assembly show that small, lightweight vehicles can be produced at high volumes and significantly lower costs than traditional aerospace methods have previously allowed.
The Skyways project developed under an agreement between Airbus Helicopters and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore is to test a drone parcel delivery service on the campus of the National University of Singapore in mid-2017.
Airbus is also designing a fleet of self-flying taxis called CityAirbus. The taxis will first be operated by a pilot, but will fly themselves once national regulations allow it. The sharing economy principle would make journeys in the CityAirbus affordable and the prospect of a ten minute flight direct across a city instead of an hour by metro or two by car is an attractive one, not to mention the excitement and wonderful views. However, many questions are yet to be clarified: How quiet would such an aerial vehicle be? How safe? How would the vehicles communicate with each other? How can operators ensure that they will not be hacked?
The public’s acceptance of this type of vehicle is yet to be seen and heard. The idea of aircraft flying without pilots doesn’t sit comfortably with many people, but the modern day appetite for new technology is stronger than ever as is the desire to have a more impressive vehicle than your neighbour. But the ultimate prize will be the liberation from the traffic jams of the world. For those road commuters, with whom I share great empathy, the day of the personal flying car can’t come soon enough.