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Airbus reveals “flying taxi” concept, Pop.Up

Aircraft manufacturer’s ‘modular vehicle’ would be both land and air capable

Airbus is pressing forward with its ambition to create a “flying car”, technology that science fiction has been promising us for decades. In conjunction with car design company Italdesign, the aviation giant has offered its response to future congestion in the form of a modular car-drone hybrid.

Unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show last week, the Pop.Up consists of three separate parts, all capable of linking to one another. The first part is the drivetrain, an all-electric platform similar to those used in many electric cars. The second is the passenger pod –called the “cocoon” by the company – a capsule measuring 2.6 x 1.4 x 1.5 metres. Finally comes the flying element, a quadcopter drone which would attach to the top of the capsule and whisk travellers off the ground should congestion on the road be too high. Flight, according to the company, would be handled autonomously.

According to Airbus’ Urban Air Mobility general manger Mathias Thomsen: “The Pop.Up system aims to give time back to commuters through a flexible, shared and adaptable new way of moving within cities introducing a new user-focused transportation system concept.”

The company says the passenger would be given the option of how they travel, choosing land or air at the flick of a switch.

Pop.Up is just a concept for now, and is not even in consideration for production by Airbus yet, but the company says it is offering the vehicle as a solution to ever-increasing urban congestion. “Right now the urban sky is quite underutilised” says Thomsen “By combining ground and air we will get a much better use of the space we have in our cities”. If, as the company suggests, 60% of the world’s population lives in cities by 2030, clever use of space will no doubt be vital.

This is not Airbus’ first foray into the realm of flying cars. It has long harboured ambitions of an autonomous aerial taxi service. Last September it introduced Vahana, a company project aimed at designing a VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft that would be the “first certified passenger aircraft without a pilot”. In January, the Vahana group announced that it would be testing a prototype vehicle before the end of 2017 and hopes to have a production-ready aircraft by 2021.

 

Flights of fancy?

If no vision of the future is complete without flying cars, VTOLs are exciting in that they appear to be the most tangible way that vision could be realised. The technology is not simple however, and is viewed with scepticism by many. For example, it has been suggested by Josef Kallo -the engineer behind last year’s successful HY4 hydrogen plane test- that the energy needed to get a VTOL off of the ground is so high that it could only achieve a realistic maximum range of 50km.

Perhaps this would be less of an issue for a vehicle such as the Pop.Up, as it would only deal in short journeys and would not always have to haul an entire capsule into the air. However, it would probably still have to recharge itself on a fairly regular basis, something which could prove impractical.

Project Vahana hopes to go into production in 2021 and Airbus imagine that an aircraft like the Pop.Up could take to the skies in 7-10 years. However, these sorts of timescales seem extremely optimistic compared to those proposed by many other aerospace engineers. Josef Kallo reckoned his hydrogen plane concept would take at least 10 to 15 years to take to the skies commercially, largely due to regulation issues. His plane would not even intrude into urban airspace nearly as significantly as the Pop.Up would. In order to establish regulations for aerial vehicles travelling above streets, one would have to navigate a legal minefield.

The engineering and regulatory issues facing Airbus are significant, but the Pop.Up concept makes it clear that the company won’t be backing away from such projects. As Airbus Group’s CEO Tom Enders stated “We take this development very seriously”.

Other companies have been working on VTOL technology as well. Germany’s Lilium grabbed headlines last year by promising a marketable VTOL by 2018, although that seems hugely unlikely. Ehang, who successfully demonstrated a VTOL proof-of-concept in January 2016 are allegedly working with the Nevada government to establish taxi drones in Las Vegas. However, despite the time and energy being poured into the technology, our wait for flying cars will have to last a little longer.

 

About Harry Locke

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