By around the end of 2020 Airbus expects to have a clear picture of its long-term plans to develop new aircraft to serving what it views as growing needs for more efficient urban air mobility. The European airframer is very well aware that smaller and much younger startup companies are pursuing more urgent timelines that could see new eVTOL aircraft enter commercial service as early as 2023, but said it prefers to take more time to ensure it delivers the right product.
Airbus has now completed flight testing of its single-seat, all-electric Vahana eVTOL concept, which made more than 100 fully autonomous flights since the first flight of the full-scale prototype on January 31, 2018. Over the next 12 months or so, the company will conclude evaluation of its four-seat CityAirbus model. What it learns from these programs will inform the company’s next steps in this sector, according to Eduardo Dominguez-Puerta, Airbus’ senior v-p for urban mobility.
The Vahana program has been led by A3 by Airbus, the group’s Silicon Valley-based technology hub, while CityAirbus is in the hands of Airbus Helicopters. It is still to be determined which part of the Airbus empire will take the lead in taking a series production eVTOL aircraft to market. For now, it has created a division called Urban Air Mobility and this includes its Voom helicopter charter partnership.
“Having lived and worked in Silicon Valley, I’m well aware of the fail-safe-fail-cheap philosophy of many tech startups there, but this approach doesn’t work when you are planning to fly people over people,” Dominguez-Puerta told AIN. “We have a strong safety brand and because of our track record the regulators know we are serious about this. So we don’t want to take a short-term approach.”
With recent developments, such as the July 2019 announcement by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency of its new SC-VTOL rules, the regulatory path to getting eVTOL aircraft certified is getting somewhat clearer. However, Airbus believes there is still some way to go before the type certification process for the new generation of urban air mobility aircraft is established.
What’s more, Airbus sees more progress required to establish a clear legal, environmental, and social policy foundation for operating these aircraft in urban environments. Behind the scenes, the group is committing significant resources to working with all stakeholders to resolve these issues. It also sees significant challenges in terms of integrating the new category of aviation into the air traffic management system and believes that its in-house expertise in this area will give it an edge over new market entrants with shallow aviation roots.
“One key difference between us and the startups is that we don’t need to raise money from venture capitalists,” he commented. “The people who have to do that tend to over-communicate what their plans are and, in our view, some of the vehicles that come from this process will not be optimal. They don’t have the chance to test different configurations and so they have to take a chance on one configuration.”
Airbus’ extensive research into prospective urban air mobility markets has confirmed that an insistence that the new aircraft don’t add to existing levels of air pollution. Noise, “visual pollution,” and privacy concerns have also been identified as significant factors in terms of social acceptability.
That said, with an average age for city residents around 33 years, Airbus believes these populations are very receptive to new technological solutions for transportation. Ultimately, Dominguez-Puerta predicted that evolving economic realities over the next few years will have a strong influence on the direction and pace of developments in the urban air mobility sector.
For that reason, as well, he believes that Airbus’ gradual approach to what appears to be a somewhat hyperactive marketplace, with as many as 150 prospective new aircraft programs, will prove to be valid.
Watch AIN's video interview with Eduardo Dominguez-Puerta here.