A number of companies are working on the idea of flying taxis, but none with the pedigree of aeronautics giant Airbus. Last year the company detailed a project called CityAirBus, a vehicle designed to autonomously carry passengers around urban areas and it has this week passed an important milestone, firing up its propulsion system for the first time.
According to the World Health Organization, the percentage of the global population living in cities grew from 34 to 54 percent between 1960 and 2014, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Traffic and pollution are two of the graver problems posed by our collective migration toward urban areas, and the way Airbus sees it, part of the solution is to start routinely flying over the top of them.
It has a number of research projects underway to that end, including a helicopter-sharing service called Voom, a drone-delivery service called Skyways and single-passenger, self-piloted vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft called Vahana. Airbus has also been working with Uber, which is looking to add an airborne element to its ride-sharing service.
But the most likely of these concepts to see real-world implementation in the near-future is the CityAirbus, and that's because it would enter service as a regular piloted helicopter, at least to begin with. It would then switch to an autonomous aircraft further down the track as regulations allow.
A CityAirbus mock-up made an appearance at the Paris Air Show earlier this year, while the eventual battery-powered VTOL aircraft is designed to carry up to four passengers and is powered by eight 100-kW electric motors, directly driving eight fixed pitch propellers for a cruising speed of 120 km/h (75 mph). Such an aircraft is now another step closer with an important milestone being reached on Tuesday when Airbus conducted full-scale testing of its propulsion system for the first time, successfully integrating it with two of the aircraft's four propellers.
"We now have a better understanding of the performance of CityAirbus' innovative electric propulsion system, which we will continue to mature through rigorous testing while beginning the assembly of the full-scale CityAirbus flight demonstrator," says Marius Bebesel, CityAirbus chief engineer.
Airbus hopes that the vehicle will one day carry passengers along fixed routes over congested megacities to hotspots like airports or train stations. First, it plans on conducting "power on" tests in the first half of next year, where all motors and electric systems will be switched on for the first time. If all goes well, it plans on carrying out the first flight of the CityAirbus in late 2018.