Chris Thatcher
By Chris Thatcher

Chris is an aerospace, defence and technology writer based in Canada.

features

Airbus maps ‘disruptive’ future

Whatever date you’re projecting for the first urban air taxi to take flight, Mark Cousin is betting it will happen sooner. But then, he’s paid to be disruptive.

Vahana, the all electric, self-piloted, VTOL aircraft from A³ by Airbus
Vahana, the all electric, self-piloted, VTOL aircraft from A³ by Airbus, completed its first full-scale flight test on Feb. 1, 2018. Airbus Photo

“I firmly believe this technology will come quicker than people imagine,” he told the Canadian Aerospace Summit in Ottawa in November.

Cousin is the chief executive officer of A³, an arms length unit of Airbus in Silicon Valley, a position he assumed on Dec. 1 after serving as head of demonstrators for the company.

“I have some fairly strong evidence that some of the technologies that are critical are maturing significantly faster than some people believe,” he told MHM Publishing in an interview. “We’re pretty optimistic that by the middle of the next decade, we’ll have the technology to build and certify an eVTOL vehicle.”

A³, often referred to as A Cubed, was created three years ago with the sole mission of disrupting the business of Airbus, a sibling capitalizing on the strength of California’s technology capital to inject new ideas.

“We may as well be disrupting ourselves rather than allow someone else to disrupt our business for us,” said Cousin, admitting he’s unlikely to make any new friends in Airbus. “You never make friends if you are telling parts of the business there are technologies coming that will make what they do today redundant in 10 years. They are not particularly receptive to that. But that is the job.”

His conviction that urban air mobility will be upon us sooner than many expect is based in large part on the work A³ has completed over the past three years, with various demonstration projects to test the technologies and market dynamics of a potentially lucrative sector. Roland Berger Strategy Consultants estimates there could be more than 100,000 passenger vehicles flying in cities around the world by 2050.

That experimentation includes hybrid and electric propulsion aircraft, self-piloted VTOL vehicles, modular designs that can transition from air to ground transportation, and a project to better define urban air traffic management.

In 2017, Airbus launched E-Fan X in partnership with Rolls Royce and Siemens, a BAe146 flying testbed intended to trial in 2021 a hybrid two-megawatt electrical propulsion system by replacing one of the four Lycoming ALF502 turbofans with a Siemens electric motor.

“This is not intended to be a product,” explained Cousin. “It’s an ambitious bet to prove these technologies are feasible and can be developed into products in the future.”

Vahana, a single seat, autonomously piloted electric-powered VTOL, conducted its first vertical flight in early 2018. CityAirbus, the multi-passenger variant based on a quadcopter-like design, will be in flight testing in 2019, and Airbus expects to have a certifiable vehicle by the mid-2020s.

Skyways, Airbus’s demonstrator for the urban parcel delivery market, saw its first flight in February 2018 in Singapore. And Pop.Up, a passenger capsule based on an Audi Smart Car-sized platform, is proving the ability to transition from airborne to ground transport with the same module. Airbus plans to fly a demonstrator in late 2020 or early 2021.

The company has also been investigating the broader dynamics of the urban air mobility market through a project in Mexico City and São Paulo, Brazil. Called Voom, it is offering helicopter transport from the cities’ airports to downtown locations, bypassing the congestion of urban traffic.

Project Voom by Airbus
Airbus has been investigating the broader dynamics of the urban air mobility market through the Voom project in Mexico City and São Paulo, Brazil. Airbus Photo

“With the growth of mega cities around the world, this is going to become more and more common,” explained Cousin. Airbus will expand to more cities in 2019 with the aim of understanding customer needs and “ultimately what the vehicles will be to service that market. We know they won’t be helicopters. They need to be safer, quieter, cheaper.”

While flying demonstrators attract much of the media attention, the more critical element before flying urban vehicles become a reality may be air traffic management. In September, Altiscope, a group within A³, delivered a blueprint for the safe integration of autonomous aircraft.

If much of this seems targeted at the executive traveler, that’s not a coincidence. They will likely be the early adopters. But all of the A³ projects are intended to understand the types of vehicles and services that will drive a much broader urban air mobility ecosystem.

“We expect eVTOLs to be significantly lower cost to operate. Some of the studies we’ve done show that in highly congested cities, it is potentially possible to offer an airport to city center trip similar to a ground limousine,” he said, noting that the cost per hour for a two-hour car ride or a 12-minute flight could quickly even out for an operator. “The end goal would be to bring the cost down to the level of [limo] ground transport, making it accessible to a much wider group of consumers.”

Cousin emphasized that Airbus would not be simply a manufacturer of platforms. Rather, it would look to be a provider, or partial provider, of an entire service.

“We have declined to be part of the Uber Elevate type model where Uber would like us to supply them with vehicles. That clearly is not a business model that we can make a return on investment from,” he said. “We will need to be much more involved in the complete value chain. Will that mean we are actually operating the vehicles? Not sure. Some of the discussions we’ve had suggest cities themselves may want to operate vehicles.

“To make the business work, we need to be integrated into the operation of the vehicle and more involved in the after-sales side of the business than just selling somebody a machine and spares occasionally. All of that is part of the learning we have to do.”

That will include better understanding of the supporting infrastructure, which will require a massive investment.

“Do we want to build or partner with others in that area?” Cousin asked.

There remain a number of technical challenges such as battery capacity and energy storage for vehicles, and there will be significant regulatory issues to resolve. But none of those hurdles are insurmountable, said Cousin. He predicted the greater challenge could be social acceptance.

He noted that many Tokyo hotels, despite regulatory approval to use roof-top helipads to flying in high value guests, have not adopted the practice “because social acceptance wasn’t there.”

With each project completing a significant demonstration milestone, Airbus has moved them into a dedicated urban air mobility organization to bring them to market, and given Cousin a clean slate to “define what the next wave is.”

While he didn’t want to be too prescriptive, he said the next cycle of projects would “have to address a real pain point or potential threat to our core business. We need to identify areas where Airbus’s core business is at risk of disruption and tailor our projects around that sort of disruption.”

That will likely involve autonomy, image recognition and processing for obstacle detection, machine learning systems to then take appropriate action, blockchain, and artificial intelligence, “areas where the Silicon Valley ecosystem has very particular skills and competencies that don’t exist in such numbers elsewhere.”

Ultimately, the goal is to ensure if those technologies do disrupt, it’s Airbus that will capitalize.

“We don’t want to find ourselves in a position where a significant part of our business is cannibalized by an external disruptor if we could have played a significant role in that business ourselves,” said Cousin.

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