A Celebratory, Bittersweet Moment: Vahana’s Final Flight
A Celebratory, Bittersweet Moment: Vahana’s Final Flight
We always knew this day would come - our technical demonstrator would take its last flight. That day was November 14th and we gathered our team, their families, Airbus leadership, and the partners who helped make Vahana possible all in Pendleton, Oregon to watch the final flight and celebrate the culmination of this intense three and a half year project together.
Vahana’s first blog post was published in September 2016 and marked a stake in the ground for Airbus and our Silicon Valley innovation center, Acubed. We were one of the first projects out of Acubed and, to date, the only major hardware initiative. This was no small undertaking.
In this - the season of gratitude - I wanted to reflect here on the abundance of thanks that are deserved surrounding Vahana. Not least of which are you - our readers, supporters, and challengers - who have followed along. What first began as a sketch amongst maverick dreamers is a success by any measure, and we’re excited to share our plans for what this means today and for the future.
It always seems a bit cliche when leaders say that something happened because of the special moment in time, group of people, and circumstances that bond a team together around a shared ambition. But I’m saying it anyway. There was a hint of magic in what Vahana accomplished in such a short time and it was entirely due to the family that we formed, the loyalty and dedication everyone demonstrated each day, and the absolute resilience they showed in the face of setbacks and skepticism, to which we were not immune. These team members have become lifelong friends and I’m grateful to all of them.
In the early days of Vahana we had few people, tools, or processes to guide our efforts. Yet we assembled an incredibly talented team - many of whom worked on Vahana throughout this groundbreaking project. Of course, any technical demonstrator - meant to retire a myriad of risks - isn’t all smooth sailing, and we’ve learned an immeasurable amount along the way.
Under the constant pressure of time, we tackled three main objectives, all of which were completed over the course of the project. These foundations truly represent the largest learnings Vahana has contributed to Airbus’ urban air mobility initiative - and the global push towards UAM altogether:
- All-electric vertical flight: We architected an all-electric propulsion system, including batteries, motors, inverters, high-voltage distribution, and actuators, and made our tilt-wing configuration fly. At the end of flight testing a few weeks ago we had flown 138 times, totalling almost 500 nautical miles, and over 13 hours of flight time.
- Autonomy: We de-risked the core elements of autonomy, including real-time detect and avoid capabilities. We had to work on not only flight control software, but also advanced sensing capabilities. We had to marry these concepts and detect both airborne and ground-based hazards and avoid them. That team was so successful they are now their own project within Acubed called Wayfinder.
- The business case around vehicles: The team learned what it would take with respect to performance to deliver meaningful value to our future passengers and operators. This information directly contributes to strategies being undertaken by Airbus Urban Mobility, a group within Airbus formed in mid-2018 in part due to the opportunity evidenced by Vahana.
Where are we - and the aircraft - going from here
With our main objectives complete we can take the learnings gathered and apply them to the next iteration of urban mobility vehicles at Airbus. Notably, the same is being done with CityAirbus. Its flight test campaign in 2020 will validate its multirotor configuration. It also has other technical objectives including developing a safe high voltage architecture. In due time, learnings from both aircraft will be used to advance our relationship with regulators and our understanding of key technologies.
While the end of flight testing means we’ll be leaving the Pendleton UAS Range by the end of this year, we know that we couldn’t have succeeded without the warm welcome we experienced from the Pendleton community. The range’s capabilities make it a fantastic candidate for future use.
While I can’t give a date for when you can expect to see the next Airbus electric vertical takeoff vehicle, I can tell you the design has already been worked on over the past year. We’re focused on ensuring the right vehicle is being architected in terms of market fit, cost, noise, value to communities, safety, etc. We are working to learn the most from both of our technical demonstrators and CityAirbus’ flight test campaign will be an important part of that.
Once that campaign is complete we’ll be able to take the team’s final learnings and apply them to the next vehicle. This will include considerations around how many passengers the aircraft will transport as well as the final vehicle configuration (tilt-wing, multirotor, or otherwise).
Above all, our commitment at Airbus is to doing things the right way, which means in a way that’s extremely safe and adds value for end users. We’re very comfortable, in that context, with not necessarily being first to market, but certainly contributing to this emerging industry as it demands great respect for its near-term opportunity.
Excitement around Vahana - and flying taxis in general - has boomed over the last few years. Yet another thing to be grateful for is seeing the many new entrants into the market demonstrating that urban passenger flights are far from fiction, rather a reality that’s accessible now.
I think I speak for the team when I say we’re grateful for the part of Airbus’ innovation ecosystem that gave us our start: Acubed. Acubed has proven itself to be an incredible testing ground for our aircraft and will continue to host numerous projects that will have a real impact on aerospace and our communities more broadly. I’m pleased that urban air mobility work will continue at Acubed in 2020 by building out technologies in service of a future vehicle. In addition, some of our team members will contribute to the ongoing efforts in Europe to design of such a vehicle.
We thank you all for your continued support and we know you will bring that same level of interest to Airbus’ next vehicle. Your thoughtful questions and enthusiastic messages have meant the world to the team and me.
- Zach Lovering