WASHINGTON—Airbus Group has provided a glimpse into its research on air taxis as an answer to growing surface gridlock in the world’s largest cities.                                                                       

This includes prototyping an autonomous air vehicle for individual passenger and cargo transport, and studies of a multi-passenger CityAirbus concept. The single-passenger vehicle is being developed by A3, Airbus’s Silicon Valley outpost, under Project Vahana, launched in February. A team of internal and external developers have agreed on a vehicle design, and the prototype is scheduled to fly at the end of 2017, according to Airbus Group magazine Forum.

The CityAirbus concept is being developed by Airbus Helicopters, which has completed a feasibility study with a favorable conclusion, Forum said. The multi-passenger vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) vehicle would use electric propulsion and multiple ducted propellers. CityAirbus would be piloted initially, switching to fully autonomous operations once regulations are in place.

Supporting these vehicle efforts is the Skyways project involving Airbus Helicopters and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. It aims to demonstrate an autonomous drone delivery service on the campus of the National University of Singapore. Planned for mid-2017, the demo will help shape the regulatory framework for unmanned aircraft operations in Singapore, according to Forum.

“The market will develop quickly, once we are able to deploy the first vehicles in megacities and [to] demonstrate the benefits of quiet, emission-free air transport at competitive prices,” Jorg Muller, a member of Airbus Group’s corporate development department, told Forum. The potential demand “corresponds to about 100 times the yearly production of Airbus Helicopters, and that would only require replacing one out of 100 ground taxis,” he said.

A major target for A3’s Vahana project is transport service providers such as Uber, the. The Uber system operates like car-sharing applications, with passengers using smartphones to book rides. “We believe that global demand for this category of aircraft can support fleets of millions of vehicles worldwide,” A3 Project Executive Rodin Lysoff told Forum.

A3 was formed in 2015 to disrupt Airbus from within, and an early project involves working with Uber to extend its ride-hailing service to helicopters. A3 joins several other Silicon Valley startups developing electric VTOL aircraft, including Joby Aviation, Kitty Hawk and Zee.Aero. NASA is also involved.

“Many of the technologies needed, such as batteries, motors and avionics, are most of the way there,” Lysoff said, adding that the lack of mature and reliable sense-and-avoid technology is “one of the bigger challenges we aim to resolve as early as possible.”

Ride-sharing is also key to the multi-passenger CityAirbus. The operating concept is for customers to use an app to book a seat on a CityAirbus, then head to the nearest heliport and board a flight that would be shared with other passengers. Sharing would make the cost of a flight more affordable, “nearly the equivalent of a normal taxi ride for each passenger, but faster,” according to Forum.

Several challenges need to be overcome before autonomous aircraft can be used for urban transport. “No country in the world today allows drones without remote pilot to fly over cities, with or without passengers,” Airbus Helicopters’ engineer Bruno Trabel, head of the Skyways project, told Forum.

For the pilot project, the helicopter manufacturer is developing an autonomous drone and an overall infrastructure based on an operations-management system created by Airbus Defense and Space. In the first phase, multiple drones will deliver parcels across the Singaporean university campus using defined aerial corridors. If successful, a second phase will extend deliveries to ships in the Port of Singapore.

Demonstration of safe operation over the university under the Skyways pilot project is expected to help shape regulations, lead into initial commercial unmanned-aircraft operations in Singapore, and potentially increase public acceptance for passenger flight testing, according to Forum.

Airbus Helicopters, meanwhile, has developed the “zenAirCity” business and mobility concept in which quiet, electrically powered aircraft such as Vahana and CityAirbus are integrated into the transport infrastructure of a megacity. The vision is a range of products and services from ride-booking and -sharing apps, through flying taxis and luggage services, to cybersecurity to protect the system.

“Given today’s technological and business constraints, most smart-city concepts completely ignore flying,” Vassilis Agouridas, one the concept’s co-developers, told Forum. “That’s why we are convinced that this represents a truly disruptive opportunity for Airbus Group.”