At a Royal Aeronautical Society lecture in London, Airbus revealed more details about its ambitious plans for Urban Air Mobility. Are we on the cusp of a revolution in air transport? TIM ROBINSON reports.

In 2025, could your Airbus A350-1000 long-haul business flight to Heathrow end with you stepping off the aircraft, going through passport control and instead of getting stuck in road works, underground strikes or overcrowded trains, see you hop inside a comfortable, quiet, electric-powered VTOL aerial taxi which would whisk you in under 20 minutes to a helipad the other side of London? Science fiction right?

What sounds like Blade Runner or even the Jetsons, is only five to seven years away from being a practical reality, according to Mark Cousin, SVP Head of Flight Demonstrators, Airbus CTO at a recent Rotorcraft Group lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society. “We believe that these vehicles will be technically feasible well before 2025,” he said.

Disrupting the disruptors

CityAirbus is a concept for an electric VTOL aerial taxi (Airbus)

Cousin, whose last post at Airbus was as Technical Director of the Beluga XL, now says he has "probably the coolest job in Airbus" reporting directly to Paul Eremenko, the group's new Chief Technology Officer, who, having come from DARPA and Google, is shaking up the airframer and pushing it to new levels of innovation.

His role, in Flight Demonstrators is to quickly and rapidly fly actual hardware, accelerating the prototype process, instead of waiting for a technology to mature. “We’re going down a route of trying to drive technology in the Group through demonstrators, rather than the classic TRL (technology readiness level) process,” he said. 

It is not just Eermenko that is pushing this digital transformation – this is being driven from CEO Tom Enders down. Cousin said that Enders has recognised that while ‘disruptive’ innovation in aerospace is inevitable – it is better to do the ‘disrupting’ yourselves than have it done to you.

Aerial taxis ahoy! 

Vahana is another VTOL 'flying car' vehicle from Airbus that will fly by the end of this year. (Airbus)

Nowhere is this technology ‘disruption’ more apparent than in the plethora of 'flying cars' concepts than have been unveiled or launched recently. Many of these, of course, will hit the hard wall of reality – either through technical shortcomings, shortage of funding or a lack of experience in understanding the level of safety and reliability needed in aviation.

Today here is now serious thought and effort going into this. Airbus is not alone, and while a number of ‘flying car’ concepts will never leave the drawing board, this aerial mobility revolution builds on research already conducted. For example, an EU research project MyCopter which ran from 2010 to 2014 examined the operational, human factors and social issues of personal air transportation.

Yet today two technologies are making this project come closer to reality – autonomous systems and electric power. Airbus of course, is no stranger to electrification, having began with the CriCri, moved on the e-Fan before tearing up the idea of an ‘electric Cessna’ for more ambitious and revolutionary ideas. Indeed, the genesis of the CityAirbus can be traced back to the idea to convert an existing Airbus Helicopters chopper to electric power. However, the possibilities and advantages offered by distributed electric motors made it clear a more radical approach was required. “Distributed electric propulsion now starts to make these vehicles possible.” said Cousin.               

In fact so keen is Airbus to ‘disrupt’ with electric VTOL flight, it is attacking the problem on two fronts, with a second project, the smaller Vahana, which was launched last year, being developed by its Silicon Valley tech division A3 and set to fly by the end of this year. Said Cousin: “This is a different approach to the same problem. It is deliberate policy to make sure we really understand what the potential for disruption of our market is.” 

The CityAirbus

Layout of the CityAirbus demonstrator.  

Cousin, however, was at the RAeS to talk about the CityAirbus project – a larger four-to-aix seat multicopter VTOL air vehicle that is being run through the Airbus CTO office and aimed at the air taxi mission. He revealed that Airbus has already been flying an unmanned 1:7 subscale demonstrator of the CityAirbus with a “deliberately very aggressive roadmap to a product.”

CityAirbus will be a four-to-six passenger electric-powered fully autonomous VTOL passenger craft. It uses eight fixed blade propellers as well as landing skids taken from a H135 helicopter.

The goal is a cruise at 120km/h with a range of 60km. A full-size prototype of the 2t vehicle is set to fly before the end of next year in unmanned mode, while a human test pilot will 'fly' or 'supervise' the CityAirbus in 2019 – only two years away. “There is an interesting debate at the moment with the test pilot over what we want them to do while onboard – not very much if honest,” joked Cousin.

Despite the aggressive timeline to test fly the prototypes, safety, redundancy and reliability would not be compromised. Cousin observed that if one of the eight Siemens electric motors did fail, passengers would be unlikely to notice.

It is also worth remembering that the CityAirbus is not intended to be a product but is a technology demonstrator – designed to explore and test the motors, batteries, battery cooling and other systems. Cousin also stresses that the CityAirbus is not simply a scaled-up UAV – “The bigger you make the vehicle, the more difficult the problem becomes – it becomes dramatically more difficult with size”. He explained: “We deliberately decided to build a big vehicle, to set the technical bar as high as possible”.     

Not just the air vehicle

Where is the real value and profit to be made in aerial taxi services?

In his talk, Cosin also stressed that while he was focused on developing a flying demonstrator, “it is also about the value-chain”. Airbus, therefore, is considering the whole eco-system and where the real value lies for it and its customers – beyond designing and testing the air vehicles. For example, is it in support and services? Flight operations? Aerial taxi ATM? Ground infrastructure? Or even developing booking apps for flights? This trend is not confined to ‘flying cars’ – Airbus is also expanding its support and services offerings in commercial airliners.   

It is also worth remembering that there is a parallel effort underway to develop air traffic management (ATM) systems (or UAV Traffic Management – UTM) to unlock what could be a market worth billions in commercial drones able to fly, navigate and safely share low-level airspace to deliver parcels, monitor rail lines, provide TV news and 101 different uses that no-one has thought of yet. With CityAirbus aiming for a similar autonomous mode of operation, will aerial passenger taxis be integrated into a drone UTM? Or will drones be integrated into a ‘flying car’ ATM system? If other companies are successful in developing their own ‘flying cars’ then an open architecture system, not linked to one manufacturer, would seem ideal – but who will decide the common standards?

“Air traffic regulation” said Cousin, “is what will pace when these vehicles start to happen.” 

Challenges

CityAirbus model at the Paris Air Show. 

During the lecture Cousin outlined some of the biggest challenges to this vision of urban air mobility.

One major obstacle he note was power consumption – and how to balance the high power needed for vertical flight with more efficient cruise modes to optimise efficiency. He added that with air vehicle manufacturers having access to the same battery technology “the highest performing product will be the one that uses the least power.”      

Another underappreciated challenge, noted Cousin, was oddly enough, keeping the floor horizontal in flight. In high-speed racing, quadcopters adopt a nose-low attitude to direct thrust rearwards. This would thus need addressing in the air vehicle design.

Battery recharging times might be another challenge – yet one that is being solved thanks to the amounts of money being thrown at the problem already by smartphone and car industry. However, one other way of mitigating this, observed Cousin, was if, as in Airbus’ PopUp concept, the passenger capsule module was separate from the electric motors and ducted fans. If, for example, an operator had more ‘capsules’ than ‘power units’ then it would be easy to keep enough charged for quick turnarounds. 

Noise, of course, is another challenge. While Cousin and Airbus are aiming for a flying vehicle much, much quieter than a helicopter, anyone familiar with small quadcopters will know they are not completely silent. Technology advances may help, for example optimised rotors which could cut noise footprints significantly. “We believe we can achieve huge steps compared to even the best helicopters we build today – reducing the noise in hover by about 10-12db – which is enormous.” He said.   

However, even if an aerial taxi could be made silent (or at least imperceptible from the ground) would there also be resistance from local communities who objected to the ‘visual pollution’ of aerial taxis whizzing over their back gardens at low level? These objections will need to be identified and understood.    

Another factor making Cousin nervous is the possibility of a fatal crash turning public opinion against the idea of VTOL urban flight, before it can even begin. “I see a new urban air mobility vehicle announced almost every day. Some of them scare the hell out of me” he admitted. He added “People are not thinking about the architecture of the product. The safety of the product comes from the architecture, it doesn’t come from the reliability of the components.” In today’s safety-first culture with the threat of ligation hovering overhead, what will happen after the first fatal aerial taxi crash?     

The potential market?

Uber believes there is a market for urban aerial taxis. (Uber)

What is the potential market for the CityAirbus or other VTOL aerial taxis?  One big driver of course is the growth of global megacities and the inevitable transport limitations. Noted Cousin “all dream about getting around our cities in a different way”.  

Those with memories of A380 marketing might argue that an Airbus presentation, proposing that megacities will drive new transport trends, has a touch of déjà vu. However, one conservative estimate (which includes VIP and EMS missions) from Airbus Helicopters puts the market at 30,000 - or two and a half times the number of its helicopters. The company has already conducted small-scale studies (Project Voom) for urban aerial taxis business models, using existing helicopters which revealed encouraging results and high willingness from passengers to pay to save time.  

While the price of a production CityAirbus aerial taxi would certainly be out of reach for many, the real savings will be in operating costs. The goal, said Cousin, is to reduce the direct operating costs to 25% of a twin-engine helicopter. This then could allow lower passenger ticket prices, stimulating demand way beyond the traditional VIP and corporate passenger rotorcraft market. The estimate of 30,000 could eventually prove to be underestimated by an order of magnitude. In fact, said Cousin, when you take into account “the economics of these type of vehicles and the time saved, the air journey is sometimes cheaper than a ground journey.” This also feeds into air vehicle design as it must be suitable for high-volume mass production, more akin to the car industry than even civil airliner manufacturing.         

There are other positive signs. Cousin revealed that the reveal of another Airbus VTOL aerial taxi concept Pop.Up at the Geneva Motor Show (which had, he quipped, generated the 'most headlines for Airbus in the past five years') car manufacturers were eager to partner with Airbus as a high-end luxury product.

This Pop.Up passenger capsule for either air or ground transport might also be adapted for other modes said Cousin, pointing to Elon Musk’s ultra-high speed HyperLoop project.   

Finally, Cousin revealed another intriguing potential customer for CityAirbus – the airlines. There is, he said, already interest from carriers who see that a fleet of CityAirbus' vehicles could fit perfectly in providing 'value added' for business or first class customers to shuttle them to and from the airport, cutting out road delays.

Finally, while one of the challenges highlighted was passenger acceptance of getting in an unpiloted vehicle (especially for older generations) one way forward to de-risk the concept might be to trial CityAirbus as emergency EMS vehicles. While coping with unpredictable updrafts from a burning building may be at moment beyond AI autonomous flight controls, the recent tragedy of Grenfell tower in London has highlighted the difficulties of urban high-rise rescue. This is, of course, not unique to London and as global megacities continue to grow vertically, there could potentially be a lifesaving EMS role for VTOL ‘aerial taxis’ too, that with enclosed rotors or ducted fans could perhaps navigate urban canyons and land in places that a helicopter could not.   

London calling

Airbus Pop.Up concept. Could this be a way of escaping London traffic? (Airbus) 

During the presentation Cousin also revealed that Airbus had simulated a London ‘aerial taxi network’ of 2023. This would use ten pickup locations, with 37 helipads and 163 vehicles in the network, connecting such nodes as Heathrow, Gatwick, Battersea Heliport and London City Airport. Using an aerial taxi would allow passengers to connect from Heathrow to London City in less than 20mins, compared to the hour or more by car in the inevitable gridlocked London traffic.

Transferring passengers in this way, using green, electric air vehicles would also have a secondary benefit of not adding to local air traffic or pollution.  

Cousin is confident that this accelerated timescale is achievable: “There is no reason why in five to seven years we will not have products which are capable of being operated in environments like London.”  

Summary

Do avgeeks dream of a fleet of electric VTOL air vehicles

In short, the lecture by Cousin was a fascinating glimpse into a future that is closer than we might imagine – some five to seven years away. The combination of Airbus' technical skills, long experience in safety-critical systems and, of course, deep pockets, married to Silicon Valley-style disruptive innovation and rapid advances in autonomous systems and electric flight is converging fast. “Urban Air Mobility is starting now to be potentially feasible or a real possibility because of development in technology” said Cousin.

Furthermore, as well as developing a new type of transportation for aerial taxi firms (Uber Elevate or others) Airbus benefits from having somewhat of a captive market with the airlines – who (along with IFE and cabins) are always keen to leap on anything that will give them a commercial competitive advantage to make their products stand out. Offering an airport-to-(almost) door aerial pick-up to premium passengers might therefore be one way of this. Bundling ‘aerial taxis’ in sales deals for airliners too might also boost wider Airbus marketing and provide a fleet of world-wide early adopters with significant purchasing power and lobbying punch to make this a reality.

 While no-one should dismiss the technical challenges that Airbus (and other 'flying car' pioneers) are facing, particularly in autonomy and low-level airspace ATM, the biggest obstacles may be not technical, but regulatory, social and perhaps most often ignored, the ground infrastructure needed. Success then, will be dependent on getting far-seeing local authorities and engaging early with stakeholders and local communities to address concerns about safety and environment. “We are seeing cities that are interested in developing this for the future, to make sure they are ready for urban air mobility when it comes” said Cousin.

Many technology revolutions (such as smartphones) are almost imperceptible at first, until a critical point has been reached, when the floodgates open and only a short time later it is taken for granted. Indeed, the explosion in heavier than air powered flight, driven by the First World War, was stunning in it rapid advances. Yet the seeds of powered flight, as evident by the Royal Aeronautical Society’s founding in 1866, go back much further. It was thus only when technology caught up with the human dream of flight that this revolution truly began.

 If we are on the cusp of a third revolution in aerospace (after powered flight, and the jet engine) then the next few years could be some of the most exciting yet. Fasten your seatbelts.

 

Tim Robinson
11 July 2017