As robo bus shuttles get off to a bumpy start on the streets of Las Vegas with last week’s accident, a prototype autonomous air taxi called Vahana is taking to the Oregon skies. Airbus’s A3 (A Cubed) division in Silicon Valley first teased renderings of Vahana—an electric plane that takes off like a helicopter—in February. Fast Company then visited A3’s Nest hangar in Santa Clara in July for a no-photos peek at two of the carbon-fiber electric planes under construction. But this is the first time A3 has released photos of the craft—shown both at the Nest and at the Pendleton, Oregon airport where tests are taking place.
Adopting the language of the Valley, A3 calls Vahana an “alpha” product, one that went from concept to functional craft in less than two years. “We’re not banking on Vahana, exactly what it looks like today, to be a winner,” says A3 CEO (and original Vahana project head) Rodin Lyasoff. “But all of the pieces that go into Vahana, all of the analysis…put us in the right place at the right time and give us the ability to be where we need to be.” The planes in Oregon have room for a single passenger, for instance. (They will fly empty during tests.) Future versions may carry several people, or maybe just cargo, says Lyasoff.
Airbus expects to spend several months testing its alpha planes before deciding in the first half of 2018 if it will move onto the beta phase: building a craft that can be ready for service by 2022. That’s an extremely tight turnaround for an aircraft.
The Vahana project is radical in some ways and conservative in others. Most radical is the timeframe—with A3 moving two or three times faster than a large enterprise like its parent company can do. It also brings a lot of technologies together for the first time: a full-scale craft with electric motors on wings that tilt upward, for vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), so it can squeeze into tight urban spaces. The wings tilt forward for flight like an airplane, allowing Vahana to travel about twice as far as a helicopter on the same amount of energy. (Going electric makes the plane much simpler to build and maintain.) There will be no controls inside the cabin: An onboard computer is the pilot.
But none of this is science fiction. The concept came from a sober market analysis showing that electric planes using current battery, motor, and sensor technologies could be profitable for trips of between about 10 and 100 kilometers (6 and 60 miles). Nor is autonomy farfetched. “I’ve seen [aircraft] that are smart enough to think for themselves,” says Jeff Mabry, who directs Vahana flight-testing and has worked as an Air Force test pilot and engineer on unmanned military aircraft.
Mabry will be testing Vahana’s novel assemblage of off-the-shelf technologies. Though no larger than a small helicopter, Vahana is likely the biggest craft to combine tilting wings and electric motors. Keeping steady in strong crosswinds (from the sides, front, or back) while the wings and rotors point upwards will provide a novel challenge. “The wing is very large, so you have essentially the equivalent of a barn door,” Mark Moore, who developed electric VTOL technologies for NASA before joining Uber in February, told Fast Company back then. “If you get a wind gust or something like that and it hits that wing, it can be problematic in terms of low speed-control.” (Uber has its own plans for robot air taxis as soon as 2020, which, at the moment, don’t include Vahana.)
The autonomous sense-and-avoid system also gets a tryout in Oregon. A drone with a reflector that makes it look bigger on radar will stand in for a small airplane, for instance; it may fly at altitudes above or below Vahana so a crash can’t happen. Vahana will fly limited routes in this round of tests, hopping from one designated waypoint to the next, rather than calculating routes on its own. “The ultimate goal is to have someone get into it and say, hey take me to that building on the other side of Beijing,” says Marbry. “That’s obviously a much more complex level of autonomy than what you can develop in two years.”