Last month, aerospace giant Airbus conducted the first successful test flight of its Vahana electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. At the time, Airbus only provided still photos to prove its claim of 53 seconds of hovering. But now we’ve got a video, and… yep, still just 53 seconds of hovering.
At first glance, it’s not much to look at: an egg-shaped cabin perched on landing skids with eight rotors and wings that tilt up or forward for vertical or horizontal flight. It’s the kind of thing many people would dismiss as an up-jumped drone, or a very confused helicopter. But the Alpha One prototype is a huge departure from Airbus’ traditional lineup of aircraft. And with an all-electric motor, it represents a pretty major breakthrough for battery-powered flight.
Airbus has said it wants to build a fleet of autonomous, multirotor eVTOL aircraft that can be used to fly from rooftop to rooftop in dense cities where traffic is often at a standstill. The project launched in early 2016as one of the first pursuits of A³ (pronounced “A cubed”), its Silicon Valley-based subsidiary. (Vahana is a Sanskrit word that refers to the vehicle or mount of a god.)
“Our goal is to democratize personal flight by leveraging the latest technologies such as electric propulsion, energy storage, and machine vision,” Zach Lovering, project executive at Vahana, said in a recent blog post. “Our first flights mark a huge milestone for Vahana as well as the global pursuit of urban air mobility.”
The reason Airbus’ efforts here are notable is because, simply put, there are no electric-powered aircraft, or even gas-electric hybrid aircraft, in commercial operation today. Flying requires an incredible amount of energy, and present battery technology just doesn’t offer the power-to-weight ratio needed to achieve liftoff. Most experts predict that it will be years, if not decades, before the technology catches up.
Vahana isn’t Airbus’ only play in the electric flight. The European aerospace giant announced last year that it was partnering with Rolls-Royce and Siemens on a hybrid electric aircraft prototype, the E-Fan X, that will prove the mixture of conventional and electric engines will work. Airbus flew a demonstrator version of the E-Fan across the English Channel in 2015, but then later scrapped the project. The new version is currently slated to fly sometime in 2020.
So for a public company like Airbus (market cap $76 billion), with all its stockholders and board members, to be invested in a ludicrous-sounding venture like “flying taxis,” it can’t help but feel like we’re on the cusp of some major breakthroughs. Just look at Ehang, the Chinese drone company, which recently demonstrated its own electric, autonomous, passenger-carrying quadcopter. Or Volocopter, which aims to launch an electric flying taxi service in Dubai soon. Or Zunum Aero, the electric jet startup backed by Boeing and JetBlue.
That said, it is still okay to remain skeptical of all this, especially claims of scale and accessibility. But if we’re just judging this based on watching cool shit fly, then I’m totally on board. Maybe not literally, though. I’m kind of afraid of flying.