Wayfinder's Origin Story

All great teams need an origin story.

Wayfinder’s story began in 2016 as part of the team building Vahana, one of Airbus’ eVTOL demonstrators originally housed within Acubed by Airbus. At first, we planned to integrate key components to build a working detect and avoid system for the Vahana Alpha aircraft. The system would show that it was possible to detect obstacles in the air and on the ground without a pilot to see them.

Figure 1: Team preparing for a data collection flight.

Before long, it became clear that no pure off-the-shelf system could be a solution for our targeted demonstration. We therefore decided to build a team to do much of the work internally. It was also clear that by doing so, Airbus as a company could benefit from the development experience and establish in-house expertise.

Over the course of 2017 and 2018, we designed and built solutions to two key problems for self-piloted vehicles:

  1. How to detect and avoid uncooperative aircraft.

  2. How to make sure the desired landing site is free of dangerous obstacles.

The resulting detect and avoid system is now integrated into Vahana Alpha - a full-scale eVTOL vehicle that our colleagues at Vahana have been testing at the Pendleton UAS Range in Oregon since early 2018.

Figure 2: Vahana AlphaOne in-flight December 2018.

In mid-2018, we further demonstrated the full capability of our system in testing on surrogate vehicles (small multi-rotor UAVs) and in hardware-in-the-loop simulation of Vahana.

Figure 3: Surrogate testing of our landing zone evaluation module.

Figure 4: Surrogate testing of our drone detection algorithm. This example shows our success at solving a challenging problem, where the environment contains difficult clutter and noise both on the ground and in the background clouds.

Today, the Vahana flight test team has completed more than 60 test flights of the full-scale vehicle. During each flight, our system logs data that we will use to refine and improve the products that we are building for future vehicles.

The technologies and processes we are building have huge implications across Airbus. With strong support from Acubed by Airbus and our colleagues in Europe, we launched our own project, Wayfinder, to build the team to deliver that impact. Here at Wayfinder, we embrace the innovative spirit of Silicon Valley, and we plan to solve the most challenging problems in developing scalable, certifiable autonomy systems to power self-piloted aircraft applications throughout Airbus, from small urban air taxis like Vahana to large commercial airplanes.

We have already expanded the range of challenges we can tackle to include a larger Airbus initiative developing solutions for Autonomous Taxi, Takeoff, and Landing (ATTOL). Stay tuned for more details about ATTOL in upcoming blog posts!

There is nothing more exciting than watching a brand new vehicle that you had a hand in building fly for the first time. After almost two years of hard work with many ups and downs (so to speak) I was lucky enough to experience the first flight of Vahana in January 2018, and it was a highlight of my career to date. Now that Wayfinder has launched to bring our systems to vehicles across Airbus, I look forward to many more of these highlights in the near future. If you’d like to help us get to our next first flight, please apply to any of our open positions or email us at hello@airbus-sv.com!

- Alex Naiman