While we look to the future of electric cars, Airbus has set its sights higher. It is working on an autonomous flying taxi that could whisk us over the city streets and expects the first prototype to be up and running by the end of next year.

It all sounds like something from The Jetsons. But with a complex guidance system, exactly the same kind of system we’ll need for autonomous cars with additional sensors for the vertical plane, there’s no reason why we can’t have miniature airships traversing the city.

The autonomous craft project has been given a codename, Vahana, and Airbus is clearly serious. This isn’t a pie in the sky idea designed to grab a few headlines.

“Many of the technologies needed, such as batteries, motors and avionics are most of the way there,” said Airbus executive Rodin Lyasoff.

Serious tech at Airbus

Airbus supplies commercial passenger jets to the world, but it also has one of the most impressive R&D facilities in the aerospace industry. It has embraced 3D printing in a big way, it recently revealed the Light Rider motorcycle produced with an organic structure and a lightweight, patented aluminum alloy and the skunk works is constantly working behind the scenes on new projects like this sky taxi.

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It’s another way of dealing with the gridlock problem that is slowly bringing the urban world to a grinding halt. Airbus’ figures suggest that 60% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030, which is a 10% hike. That could have serious consequences for urban mobility.

Traffic is a serious financial drain

Gridlock is almost unbearable already in certain places. Airbus claimed that in rush hour there is 212 miles of traffic stretched out at any one time in Sao Paulo, which costs the economy $31 billion a year. In London, people spend 35 working days a year sat in traffic and the situation in Manila, Tokyo and Mumbai is much worse.

Tesla is planning autonomous minibuses and ride hailing services, GM and Lyft are working on a similarly ambitious plan and others have their own ideas. Airbus might have the most ambitious plan yet.

There’s a clear market for this technology, but there are obstacles too. Sense and avoid technology is in its infancy in the car industry and there simply isn’t an airborne system that covers all the bases.

Could a car company work with Airbus?

That’s the first step for Airbus and there’s almost certainly a way to share R&D costs with a car manufacturer or tech giant to create an impenetrable system. Then the company will have to convince the regulators it’s a good plan.

Bruno Trabel from Airbus Helicopters said: “No country in the world today allows drones without remote pilots to fly over cities – with or without passengers.”

The company has a pilot scheme of a sort in action already. It is working with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and will test a drone parcel delivery service on the campus of the National University of Singapore next year. Airbus is starting small, then, but it could pave the way for a brave new Jetsons-style future.

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