Airbus developing world's first autonomous aircraft

Article by Christian Andrei, on October 26, 2016

It seems that having a self-driven personal flight craft will cease to be only a dream in the near future. This comes as A3 -- pronounced as “A-cubed” – announced that a full-size prototype of its Project Vahana aircraft would be flying the skies before the end of 2017.

A3, a Silicon Valley-based subsidiary of European aircraft maker Airbus Group, commenced Vahana in early 2016. This personal flight aircraft is special – it does not require a runway and a human pilot. Moreover, this personal flight aircraft could detect and automatically avoid obstacles as well as other aircraft on its flight path. A3 is aiming to have a ready-to-produce demonstrator by the end of the decade and make the Vahana the first autonomously piloted certified passenger aircraft.

Thanks to the fact that technical and regulatory challenges have become possible to comply with, the trend towards affordable flight. For instance, battery safety and energy density have now become adequate to be applied for aircrafts. In addition, obstacle detection and avoidance technologies have already matured to the point that safe aircraft takeoff and landing as well as collision avoidance in flight are now possible. Moreover, recent advances in automated composite manufacturing as well as assembly have made it possible to produce small and lightweight vehicles at high volumes yet with lower costs. Lastly, low-cost, reliable avionics are now widely available following years of UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) development.

Rodin Lyasoff, chief executive of A3, has disclosed the progress that the Vahana Project has already achieved. For instance, A3 has already completed the design of the project. Sketches of the prototype show a drone-like aircraft with eight electrically powered, tilting propellers. Likewise, A3 has already made contact with a number of external partners who would provide assistance in building the first airframe. Also, A3 has already procured or developed several critical subsystems. These add to the fact that A3 is assembling a team of experts in aircraft design and manufacturing, vehicle autonomy and electric propulsion, as well as aircraft certification.

According to Lyasoff, A3 believes that full automation would make is possible to achieve higher safety by keeping human error to a minimum. He noted that the Vahana Project aircraft would follow predetermined flight paths, but could deviate if an obstacle is on the way and has to be avoided. He added that by aiming for full automation, the aircraft could be made as small and light as possible while cutting manufacturing costs.

Lyasoff remarked that the new aircraft will have the ability to operate safely even if it loses a motor. If the aircraft suffers from a severe malfunction, it would deploy a ballistic parachute that functions even at low altitudes.

Topics: airplane

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