Billing it as a solution to urban congestion, Airbus has announced a new effort to build helicopter-like autonomous flying vehicles to transport both small parcels and, even more radically, passengers. The battery-powered passenger vehicles, currently dubbed CityAirbus, would be summoned by smartphone and travel along aerial urban roadways, constituting a system of robotic flying taxis.
It’s the kind of futuristic proposal we’ve come to expect from ambitious startups. The Chinese-developed Ehang 184 this year became the first quadcopter drone to carry a passenger, and Germany’s e-Volo accomplished a similar feat with its Volocopter soon after.
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But having the market heft and expertise of a major player like Airbus behind such a project makes it much more likely it will actually become reality–and they’re moving fast. Work there has apparently been underway since February of this year, and the first prototype vehicle will be tested in 2017. Airbus executives say the product could be on the market in as little as ten years.
There are hurdles, however. Airbus says one of the biggest unsolved challenges is in so-called “sense and avoid” technology–an airborne version of the self-driving systems that are still in an imperfect state on the ground. Strange as it sounds, flying vehicles arguably have an advantage over cars on that front, since they have to deal with fewer obstacles and can move in three dimensions to avoid collisions, instead of just two.
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The other challenges for such a scheme lie in regulation and security. Lawmakers, Airbus has acknowledged, are certain to be leery of automated systems flying above the same densely-peopled cities they’re intended to make more efficient.
A large part of that hesitation is rooted in the threat of hacking. As researchers have shown in recent years, even today’s semi-smart cars are sometimes subject to remote takeover. While security is a high priority for the Airbus project, there’s still little evidence that it’s even possible to build a system that can’t be hacked–making heavy drones into potential playthings for all sorts of bad actors.