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Airbus to Test Self-Flying Passenger Drone in 2017

The company is looking to move ground-bound transportation into the sky.

In 1945, a young aspiring science fiction author named Arthur C. Clarke wrote a short story called “Rescue Party” where he envisioned aliens exploring a futuristic Earth. In the future, Clarke imagined, most people would shift from personal cars to personal helicopters. Their range of mobility would extend so far that they would largely abandon cities.

Some 70 years later, the helicopter is a bastion of the military and local broadcast news stations — and most people are still driving around in their own cars on the ground, getting into accidents and traffic jams.

But by tweaking Clarke’s vision, a group of private companies thinks they can get those people out of their cars and into the air.

Airbus, known largely for its airplanes, has announced that it plans to test out an early-stage concept of self-flying drones at the National University of Singapore in 2017. The idea of the company is to not only make drones that can fly themselves, but take personal ownership out of the equation as well — a far cry from each family parking a helicopter at their house.

The company is exploring several uses for the concept:

  • Vahana, which would involve single-passenger taxis as well as cargo transportation.
  • CityAirbus, which would transport multiple passengers.
  • ZenAIRCITY, a suite of services aimed at fulfilling specific rider needs such as transporting luggage and connecting travelers together.
The visions the Airbus teams working on these concepts put forth are radically different from the status quo. A passenger arriving at an airport might, instead of taking a taxi, hop into a cheap drone and ride to a hotel with other people. A trip across town wouldn’t involve routing, but simply two dots on a map — a pickup helipad and a dropoff helipad.

And all with no traffic to worry about.

Airbus isn’t the only company working on such concepts. Chinese company EHang debuted a single-passenger drone at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January and announced that it intends to test the vehicle in Nevada this year. German firm e-volo has been working on a similar concept. They all involve some degree of automated control.

The group’s test at the National University of Singapore will involve delivering packages with the Vahana craft, simply to prove that the concept works. The drones will pick up packages from nearby ships and then follow designated corridors through the air to their dropoff points.

As of now, the Vahana project members have designed the vehicle and are working on building and testing its systems. The CityAirbus project has completed a feasibility study.

In Airbus’ announcement of the project, Silicon Valley-based corporate development employee Matthieu Repellin acknowledged that government regulation will be one hurdle for the project to overcome. Namely, that governments around the world don’t allow drones to fly without a human controller.

But Airbus is actively working to overcome that. That’s the explicit purpose of a project it calls “Skyways” — to “evolve” regulations.

Government restrictions, Repellin said, are “only a temporary barrier to entry.”

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.

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