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pilotless vehicles

Oct 5, 2017

Pilotless fixed route CityAirbus vehicle starts full scale testing

A gently worded reminder from Airbus that whatever makes cars 'driverless' can make flying machines 'pilotless'

A remarkably serene graphic of a CityAirbus over Manhattan

Maybe pilotless passenger carrying flights on major city pairs like Melbourne-Sydney will be part of a transport revolution that is likely to include self-navigating or driverless cars before 2050.

That possibility needs to be kept in mind after Airbus started full scale testing of the electric propulsion system for its four passenger CityAirbus concept at its helicopter division’s plant in Donauwörth, Germany in recent days.

Everything Airbus has said about this project to date is about its application within cities, such as hoisting the time poor over traffic jams to “airports or train stations in a fast, affordable and environmentally friendly way.”

But why stop at such modest objectives. If the technology works as intended (and it undoubtedly will) there is no reason why it wouldn’t apply just as reliably for 400 passengers at a time between Sydney and Melbourne or Paris and London.

Four people at a time, and at just 120 kmh, from let’s say a meeting in Docklands to Tullamarine Airport seems remarkably limited in scope, given that there are dozens of jetloads of infuriated would be passengers every day trying to get to Melbourne’s main airport along one of the most chronically poorly envisaged and operated roadways in any Australian city since Sydney’s Tank Stream was buried under Bridge Street.

The CityAirbus has so far flown, well, not yet flown, under the radar compared to self driving car technology. Everyone knows ‘driverless’ cars are coming, despite the odd atrocity here and there.

Driverless cars will not just totally disrupt notions of private car ownership with their car-asset-sharing possibilities, but allow those who keep killing themselves and others by using mobile phones at the wheel to actually live their stunted lives hunched over tiny silver screens in complete safety as they are transported by robot cars on their commutes.

There is no technological barrier to something similar happening to aircraft, other than possibly the mother and father of all industrial disputes involving professional pilots.

Airbus has chosen its words well, if sparingly, in the following statement, and we might surmise, to avoid stampeding the horses or otherwise causing alarm.

But think of it this way. There are still alive today (although only barely alive) relics from generations where lifts in high rise buildings were all manually operated by lift drivers. They often wore uniforms, just like pilots. They were there for your safety. Presumably to stop lifts plummeting down lift wells, something that did happen on rare occasions. As in the plummeting bit, not the heroic bit.

Airbus is talking about fixed routes. Just like lifts, the very embodiment of a fixed route is ever there was one. We have glimpsed the future!

Project on track for maiden flight in 2018

London, Airbus Helicopters has recently completed the first full-scale testing for the propulsion system of the CityAirbus demonstrator – a multi-passenger, self-piloted electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicle designed for urban air mobility. During this successful testing phase, the CityAirbus team thoroughly checked the individual performance of the ducted propellers as well as the integration of the full-scale propulsion unit with two propellers, electric 100 KW Siemens motors and all electrical systems.

CityAirbus is a battery-powered air vehicle able to vertically take off and land. It is designed to carry up to four passengers over congested megacities to important destinations such as airports or train stations in a fast, affordable and environmentally friendly way. The innovative four-ducted propeller configuration significantly contributes to safety and low acoustic footprint.

“We now have a better understanding of the performance of CityAirbus’ innovative electric propulsion system, which we will continue to mature through rigorous testing while beginning the assembly of the full-scale CityAirbus flight demonstrator” says Marius Bebesel, CityAirbus chief engineer.

The full-scale demonstrator will be tested on ground initially. In the first half of the coming year the development team expects to reach the “power on” milestone, meaning that all motors and electric systems will be switched on for the first time. The first flight is scheduled for the end of 2018. In the beginning, the test aircraft will be remotely piloted, later on a test pilot will be on board.

CityAirbus will be designed to carry up to four passengers on fixed routes with a cruising speed of 120 km/h. It will be initially operated by a pilot to ease certification and public acceptance, paving the way to future fully-autonomous operations.

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9 comments

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9 thoughts on “Pilotless fixed route CityAirbus vehicle starts full scale testing

  1. StickShaker

    I notice that Airbus is using Siemens electric motors. Siemens is at the head of the pack in developing electric motors with high power to weight ratio’s. Such attention to detail in terms of appropriate technology gives the Airbus program far more credibility than the PR puff associated with the Uber “flying taxis”.
    I wonder what approach will be used to deal with the relatively long time required to recharge batteries.

    1. comet

      New formulations of lithium battery take less time to charge. Besides, it would be a trivial engineering exercise to include removable batteries.

      I’m not sure what they’d do in the event of a lithium fire, though. I assume they’d have to continue along their 18km journey before they could land.

  2. George Glass

    What the hell is happening? Is there any chance whatsoever that a nut-job idea can subjected to ANY critical scientific,technological,practical,economic or COMMON SENSE evaluation?Uhhhhm….Liability anyone? Technical failure resulting in death and injury? Flight into thunderstorms ,jet-stream turbulence? Seriously,why do people how dont know how a toilet works think they have a right to an opinion? Is there any realization of how complex the real world is?Oh,I forgot.For the Facebook and twitter generation simply wanting and demanding are enough. Reality is just an irritating detail.I am starting to get really,really worried about the future.

    1. Goat Guy

      If you work for a software company the chances are that you probably don’t think driverless cars or in this case pilotless aircraft are great ideas. I’d prefer a human with access to the controls for the times when that little bug that the devs missed pops up or the situation of seemingly random events that wasn’t in the design spec occurs. I’d trust a pilot over a dev any day, not to mention how secure from attack these systems will be given the number of external systems they will have to interface with.

      1. Ben Sandilands

        Just in case anyone missed it, there was an attempt made at ‘irony’ in this post.
        However, it’s a serious topic, and one that I don’t think some of my editorial pilot referees quite get, and there will be a follow up post shortly, about Boeing getting in on the action, and with less ‘subtlety’.

    2. mike westerman

      Humans may be cute but they are hopelessly unreliable: forgetful, habituated, unobservant, malicious, insecure, irrational. The stats support moving further to eliminate human factors: aviation has never been safer.

  3. Jacob HSR

    Would the Musk rockets be pilotless? I think rockets already are. As if a human could land a rocket. I bet the SpaceX rockets are landed by computers.

  4. Dan Dair

    I think there’s a couple of points worth mentioning;
    Firstly,
    Driverless cars which encounter a problem can simply stop, or preferably pull-off to the side of the road & stop out of harms way.?
    With the best will in the world, a flying vehicle with a comparable problem, will never be as straightforward to get out of trouble.?
    (previous experience shows that skilled pilots who are actually on board are excellent at thinking outside the box when things badly wrong, though the same experience shows us that skilled pilots can make silly mistakes which get aircraft into trouble too.?)

    Secondly,
    As we have all seen with road-building projects, what looks like far too much road when it’s first opened, soon looks like far too little as the new road fills-up to capacity & more.?
    What is is about flying commuter-vehicles that makes anyone think that pretty-soon the ‘brave new world’ of Airbus’Copters,
    won’t start to look more like the bizarre transport world depicted at the start of ‘5th Element’ or in the opening titles of ‘Futurama’.?

  5. nightflyer

    I’m with George – If a car runs into something there’s (mostly) just a few dents; if an aeroplane runs into something – often another aeroplane – and no matter how gently, everybody dies.