Ahead of the curve: Airbus’s Jörg Müller on urban air mobility


The City Airbus VTOL concept

The best-known company in urban aviation is Uber. Its Uber Elevate project has captured the imagination of many of the public – and also many reporters. But the company leading the market is arguably Airbus.

Airbus, one of the two largest commercial aviation companies in the world, already has more than 12,000 helicopters in service with more than 3,000 customers worldwide.

The company has been slowly building up an urban air mobility (UAM) division since 2014 – starting with several air taxi concepts, traffic management and launching its helicopter air taxi initiative. It also has three VTOL concepts – Vahanna, Pop.Up Next and City Airbus.

Airbus has also established a Silicon Valley subsidiary to tap into the tech world.

We reached out to Airbus’s head of programs and strategy for urban air mobility Jörg Müller to find out more about Airbus’s urban air mobility plans and what to expect from the company over the next few years.

HI: How did you get into the VTOL market?

Jörg Müller: “Via our helicopters division, Airbus has been present in the VTOL market for decades– our long-standing portfolio consists of a broad range of helicopters for different missions. But when we look towards the future, we are thinking beyond today’s markets and products.

“Electric VTOL (eVTOL) – along with autonomous flight, digitalisation and urbanisation—are trends and technologies we see disrupting our industry.  In order to position ourselves at the forefront of this, Airbus created an Urban Air Mobility (UAM) unit earlier this year, which, among other UAM initiatives such as Voom, our on-demand helicopter mobility service; air traffic management and infrastructure development; and other partnership-building and pilot projects, steers the development of Airbus’ ongoing eVTOL technology demonstrators, Vahana and CityAirbus. This is also one reason we founded A3 as our Silicon Valley outpost for innovative, disruptive projects.”

HI: How long has Airbus been looking at passenger VTOLs?

Jörg Müller: “Since we have a pioneering spirit embedded in our DNA, there have been isolated ideas for innovative air vehicles and mobility concepts being circulated throughout our helicopter division, chief technology office, and other parts of the company for nearly a decade. In a company-wide effort to consolidate this expertise, in late 2014 we created our first vision of how we see ourselves making an impact in this new market opportunity and harnessing the potential of air mobility to transform our cities for the better.

“Today, we are driving several passenger VTOL projects such as CityAirbus (a four-seater, all-electric, VTOL multicopper air taxi); Vahana (single-passenger, all-electric, fully-autonomous, VTOL air taxi demonstrator with tilt-wing configuration); and Voom our on-demand helicopter mobility service operating in Sao Paulo and Mexico City. With these projects and our infrastructure studies we are able to explore and demonstrate all bricks of the end-to-end mobility solution and a broad technical design space in eVTOLs.

“But we aren’t merely embarking on the development of vehicles. We are on a quest to co-create an entirely new market that sustainably integrates urban air mobility into the city context while addressing environmental and social concerns. Airbus believes that the hurdles are less about technology and business models, and more about urban integration, public acceptance and automated air traffic management.”

HI: What is next on the agenda for the Vahana, CityAirbus and Pop.Up Next?

Jörg Müller: “To date, Vahana has performed more than 40 flight tests as it continues to move through flight testing. We expect our other technology demonstrator, CityAirbus, to have its first flight early 2019. Pop.Up Next is a multi-modal ground and air vehicle concept which is still at the preliminary study stage. We see certified eVTOLs operating in cities as early as mid-next decade.”

HI: Everyone from Silicon Valley AI companies to legacy aircraft manufacturers are working on VTOLs. With so many disparate people, are there any difficulties working together?

Jörg Müller: “There’s no doubt that the stakes are high when we look at the exploding variety of new technologies and new competitors, but the challenge of making UAM a reality is bigger than any one company. It requires close cooperation between private and public stakeholders to set up the necessary infrastructure and regulatory frameworks that will ensure society benefits.

“The ecosystem of UAM is forming around us as we speak—there’s never been a more exciting time to be in aerospace. We think Airbus is uniquely positioned to make UAM a reality given its credibility with authorities, potential partners and passengers, its longstanding aerospace expertise and its global reach. It is a big advantage and a privilege that we can combine Silicon Valley style start-up spirit with the experience of a traditional aircraft manufacturer.”

HI: Is Airbus targeting the air taxi market or private customers first?

Jörg Müller: “As the market for UAM services is about to emerge, it makes sense to follow several different paths to be able to cater the needs of as many potential end-users as possible. But our motivation goes beyond the end user. Airbus firmly believes in the potential of air mobility to transform our cities for the better. By pushing the limits of technology in the fields of connectivity, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and electric propulsion, our aim is to develop sustainable mobility systems that bring minimum environmental impact and maximum societal benefit. To this end, Airbus is harnessing its expertise across the company to develop solutions that offer viable alternatives in congested cities and help connecting cities and regions.

“One example of this is Voom, which has been operational for the past 18 months, and is currently available in Sao Paolo and Mexico City. Voom is not only a B2C effort on our part, but it’s providing us with rich information and insight to better understand passenger and operational requirements in today’s evolving market. While Voom is currently operating traditional machines (i.e. helicopters), the data collected will be instrumental in the development of the future UAM market.”

HI: With so many established companies jumping into the VTOL market, will start-ups be able to keep up?

Jörg Müller: “It’s important to realize that this effort is not just about developing new VTOL vehicles. In some ways, that’s the simpler part for a company like Airbus which has been designing, manufacturing and certifying flying platforms for nearly 50 years. The real challenge lies in safely integrating this new class of vehicles in the urban environment—the certification of the vehicle and the overall transport system, operational security, and the regulations for commercial operation in cities. We believe these are some of the challenges newcomers in this space will be faced with.”

HI: Airbus recently struck an agreement to trial the Pop.Up Next in Hamburg. Are you talking to other cities?

Jörg Müller: “In 2017, Airbus was appointed to lead the UAM Initiative of the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP SCC), and thus far, Hamburg and Ingolstadt have joined. Although this initiative is still in a very early stage, the “Smart City” UAM concept trials are platform-agnostic. Accordingly, any choice of a vehicle would depend on the mission and the availability of the platform. Airbus has no agreement with Hamburg in the frame of the “Smart City” initiative and the Hamburg trial is not focused on passenger transport. More German and European cities and regions have joined this initiative meanwhile with different scenarios, not all of them involving eVTOL solutions.  

“On a broader scope, the EIP SCC is a city-centric, citizen-driven initiative focused on UAM which interfaces with public transport; ATM/UTM concepts for UAM and its integration in view of single sky operations; determining the required UAM infrastructure; and mobility as a service. The initiative aims to give rise to partnerships that will facilitate project applications and could lead to applied demonstrator studies in EU cities. To date, 17 European cities are onboard, with 12 projects scheduled to start in 2019, ranging from an exploration of air taxi use to how drones might benefit logistics hubs or deliver critical medical supplies.”

HI: How are the talks with regulators going? What countries are most willing to accept VTOLs (private or commercial)?

Jörg Müller: “We have had preliminary discussions and are working with regulatory bodies to bring future eVTOLs to cities across the globe that experience traffic congestion. We are encouraged by the dialogue that has taken place to date. The three biggest aspects of legislation and regulation that are presently evolving are aircraft certification, airspace integration, and air traffic management. Airbus has ample experience in aircraft certification—we know how long it takes to get an aircraft certified and what resources are needed. We are targeting to type certify our aircraft and are working hand-in-hand with regulators and standards bodies to develop a model for managing large-scale automated flight within urban environments.”

HI: What have we got to look forward to from Airbus in 2018?

Jörg Müller: “In late October we achieved the first “power on” for CityAirbus, which we’re proud of, and we anticipate the first flight to be early next year. The next major milestone for Vahana follows the testing of the cruise and landing phase hazard detection system, the transition to cruising flight. We’re also looking forward to rolling out Voom in cities in Asia and beyond.”

HI: Are you worried about peoples’ willingness to fly in an autonomous vehicle?

Jörg Müller: “At Airbus, our mission is not moving ahead with autonomy as a means to an end, but to connect and protect people– public acceptance and comfort are principles that are at the core of everything we do.

“Consequently, it’s worth noting that the principle of autonomous systems has long-existed. We saw “piloted” trains and elevators eventually give way to automated ones, and in fact autonomy, or at least unmanned remotely-controlled vehicles, are already a reality today across Airbus’ entire portfolio.

“As we look forward, we recognise that we are not only building transportation solutions for our current generation, but also for our children’s for whom autonomy will be synonymous with convenience and safety. That said, as we are pursuing a variety of strategies in the UAM organisation and we have the flexibility to adapt to customer needs.”

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