Airbus reveal the taxi that flies itself

Could flying cabs be the future of public transport? Airbus think so.
A render of the Airbus Project Vahana flying taxi
Vahana in (rendered) flight © Airbus
By Phil Barker

Sick of sitting in traffic every time you head into a city centre? European aerospace manufacturer Airbus may have an almost unbelievably cool solution in the form of Project Vahana, an electric, driverless, flying taxi that could dramatically slash journey times.

Project Vahana is just one of the vehicles in Airbus’s A³ (pronounced A-cubed) division, which has been set up to to work on advanced projects and partnerships. It looks like the stuff of science fiction, with images from Airbus showing a single-seater vehicle with a lifting canopy, eight propellers and wings that tilt upwards for the all-important vertical take-off and landing (VTOL). That’s the bit that means Vahana could pick up and drop off passengers from city centres without needing a runway.

It’s certainly easy to see the appeal; Uber can spend all the money in the world on developing driverless cars for their transport fleet, but if the roads are congested then autonomous cars will still grind to a halt. Project Vahana could potentially offer the best of all worlds, flying around traffic without a driver and getting the juice for its electric motors from a charging point. What’s not to like?

"The aircraft we’re building doesn’t need a runway, is self-piloted, and can automatically detect and avoid obstacles and other aircraft," Airbus explained when launching Project Vahana towards the end of last year.

A render of the Airbus Project Vahana flying taxi
The canopy opens like a helmet visor © Airbus

Airbus looked at both helicopter concepts and winged vehicles when initially deciding on a form factor for Project Vahana, before settling on a hybrid that included both. “The addition of wings improves cruise aerodynamics compared to a helicopter,” explains Zach Lovering, the project executive for Vahana. “In hover, a tilt-wing has lower power requirements than a tilt-rotor as the download on the wings is substantially reduced.”

Early images may be simple sketches and renders, but Airbus have already started working on Project Vahana and the flying taxi could be running through tests as early as this year. In fact, according to Jörg Müller from Airbus’s corporate development department, we could see an entire market based around flying taxis in the not too distant future.

“This market will develop quickly once we are able to deploy the first vehicles in megacities and demonstrate the benefits of quiet, emission-free air transport at competitive prices,” he says.

While Project Vahana may lack something in the practicality stakes – what if you want to travel with friends, for example – it certainly sounds exciting, and Tom Enders, the Airbus CEO, paints a particularly epic vision of the future:

“I’m no big fan of Star Wars, but it’s not crazy to imagine that one day our big cities will have flying cars making their way along roads in the sky. In a not too distant future, we’ll use our smartphones to book a fully automated flying taxi that will land outside our front door – without any pilot.”

While testing is set to begin this year, it’ll be a few years before we see Project Vahana flying through the skies, with a production-ready aircraft scheduled for 2021.

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