Today we stand at a unique convergence point of several new technologies, such as autonomy, improved batteries and low-cost mass produced light-weight materials that enable us to move into the third dimension with a new class of urban flying vehicles.
What might sound like material from a science fiction novel is already being developed today. Airbus is exploring several models to revolutionize urban transport, one of them being the “Vahana” project. “Vahana” is a fully electric, self-piloted aircraft that can carry a passenger or cargo and does not need a runway to take off. The first flight of a full-size prototype is scheduled before the end of 2017, and a productizable demonstrator is expected by 2020. As “Vahana” is fully electric it is much quieter than conventional aircraft and does not produce local emissions. Depending on the energy mix used it can be operated completely by renewable energy.
Urban mobility will move to the sky, and with it the use and habits of customers will change. Of course, not everyone will have their own self-flying vehicle in the future, so it will be crucial to build an inter-operable transport system with other transport means such as subways and buses. Urban air transport on demand operated by local authorities or transport companies will be a key feature to make transport more efficient and easy to use.
It needs to be mentioned that developing safe and viable self-piloted vehicles for urban spaces is no longer the blocking point. The hurdles we see are less about technology or the business model, and more about urban integration, public acceptance, and automated air traffic management.
To reap the many benefits in Europe, we must start working now with policymakers on new regulatory frameworks, public investments in infrastructure, and dialogue with civil society on an updated regulatory framework. The EU Commission’s recently published first draft of the U-Space, which covers altitudes of up to 150 metres in cities, paves the way for the development of an EU drone services market. Opting for a U-Space framework where urban air mobility services offer integrated interfaces with manned aviation will allow us to benefit from the very high level of automation, connectivity and digitalisation for both the drone and the U-Space system. Furthermore, drone insertion pilot studies in the EU will be key to accelerate market uptake and a well developted 5G mobile network is crucial to providing the necessary digital infrastructure for urban air mobility.