Electric and self-piloted aircraft might be coming sooner than you think. Competition is a great accelerator in bringing technologies to market and it seems like there’s never been that many companies in the field. Earlier this year, it was even revealed that Alphabet CEO Larry Page was financing two separate startups with over $100 million to compete in developing their own electric aircraft designs.

Now Airbus is also entering the race and unveiled its design for a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) electric and autonomous aircraft.

The vehicle program is called ‘Vahana’ and it is being developed by Airbus’ subsidiary A³ (pronounced “A-cubed”) based in Silicon Valley. A³’s CEO, Rodin Lyasoff, was formerly a Lead Engineer for Flight Software and Simulation at Zee Aero, one of the electric aircraft startups financed by Page.

Lyasoff briefly described the concept in a blog post:

“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.”

And he released two renderings of the concept:

They have a pretty aggressive timeline to production. They aim to fly a full-size working prototype before the end of 2017, and to have a scalable to production demonstrator by 2020.

Lyasoff sees several technological trends pointing toward manned electric and autonomous aircraft being feasible in the near future:

  • Battery safety and energy density are now adequate for airborne applications.
  • Low-cost, reliable avionics are becoming broadly available, leveraging decades of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) development.
  • Mature obstacle detection and avoidance technology can enable safe aircraft takeoff 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.

A³ claims to have completed the vehicle design of ‘Vahana’ and to have “developed or procured many critical subsystems.” They are currently hiring to increase their effort in bringing the concept to reality.

The company sees the concept being used in what they call ” truly vertical cities” with predetermined flight paths for autonomous aircraft carrying passengers – virtually creating an autonomous flying electric taxi service.

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