Airbus executive looks to make 'urban air mobility' a reality

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AUTOMOTIVE NEWS EUROPE MONTHLY MAGAZINE

Airbus, Audi and Italdesign jointly developed the Pop.Up Next.

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Automotive News Europe
September 4, 2018 06:01 CET

The European aeronautical giant Airbus has partnered with Audi and Italdesign to create the Pop.Up concept, a vision of electric, autonomous urban air mobility. Mark Cousin, Airbus’s head of flight demonstrators, spoke with Automotive News Europe Correspondent Peter Sigal about the project’s potential, and the challenges of adapting aeronautics design to ground transportation.

What problems will urban air mobility solve?

The problem is massive traffic congestion today. Even though we’re an aerospace company, we came quite quickly to the conclusion that better urban mobility will solve the problem. The key, and this is why we chose to link up with Audi, is that the urban air mobility component becomes a part of an integrated solution. The obvious example where the air part can contribute is the transport from city centers to airports. We all know how painful that is today. Trying to get from central London to Heathrow airport at peak times can take you an hour and a half, and it’s unpredictable, so you need to allow yourself 2.5 hours to get there. Whereas with an urban air mobility solution like we’re talking about, the flight would be 12 minutes. The feedback that we got at the 2017 Geneva auto show [where the Pop.Up concept debuted] is that people are really attracted to seamless mobility. They want to book a journey from A to B and they want the system to tell them the most efficient way, depending on their constraints in time and cost. They don’t care how they get there.

How did the Pop.Up come about?

The original idea came from Italdesign. They asked Tom Enders, our CEO, toward the end of 2016 if Airbus would want to be involved in co-branding and helping to make a realistic concept. The Pop.Up is a concept. It’s trying to show people what could be possible, and to elicit feedback and reaction, which we got in a volume that was vastly higher than we expected.

How has the project grown in scope?

The second version of the Pop.Up [that appeared at the 2018 Geneva show] was the subject of more concrete discussions between the CEOs of Audi and Airbus. We now have a formal cooperation agreement to develop the mobility of the future. The Pop.Up will help us study the feasibility of modularity. Can we break the vehicle down into three modules: Ground, capsule and air modules, and make the transport flexible and seamless? We have other elements of cooperation: We have been running a concept called Voom in Sao Paulo and now Mexico City. There we are using existing helicopters to pilot the use of air vehicles as urban transport, and we are going to work with Audi to provide the ground segment of travel.

We kind of expectations do you have for Voom?

The objective with Voom is not to introduce helicopters into cities around the world, because we know for multiple reasons that that is not acceptable in the majority of cities, but it’s to learn the dynamics of the market and the way that kind of system can operate. We want to be fully prepared for the arrival of electric flying vehicles, which will change the game completely due to a dramatic reduction in cost. Their operating cost will be one-quarter to one-third that of a twin-engine helicopter.

Cousin: “My personal view is that the commercialization of an electric hovercopter product that can be certified and sold into the market is probably around 2025.”

When could the Pop.Up see a prototype flight as proof of concept?

We could fly the Pop.Up by the end of 2019 if we decide it’s the right way to go. It would utilize the architecture from the City Airbus [a flying taxi prototype], which we will fly at the end of this year. We will have to decide if it’s the right way forward or if we want to introduce evolution to the flying platforms before we fly the modularity concept. And, the other question: Do we actually need to fly the modularity concept [Pop.Up] to prove that it’s feasible? These are exactly the sort of things we are working on with Audi at the moment.

What products do you envision coming out of your agreement with Audi?

We have basically got three work streams. The first is Pop.Up, where we are working on demonstrating the feasibility of modularity. The second workstream is the Voom project, working with them to integrate ground transport. The third is working on the business model: How we would interface with the customer, and opening up joint discussions with cities, which we know are going to be key. We also intend to include other critical players in our alliance in the near future.

When will elements of the project be commercialized?

We aim to put a small fleet of vehicles, both air and ground, into service with some host cities around 2022. My personal view is that the commercialization of an electric hovercopter product that can be certified and sold into the market is probably around 2025. The technological challenges are unlikely to stop us. It’s more dependent on the readiness of cities and regulators to keep pace. They are already realizing that they completely missed the boat on regulating drones. I think the cities have learned their lesson from Uber, too. They have realized that they have to do this differently for the next generation of urban mobility solutions. I don’t think they will make the same mistake twice.

How do you engineer aircraft safety margins into product such as the Pop.Up?

The accidents are going to be occurring in a city environment, where they will affect not only passengers but people on the ground who didn’t sign on to the risks of something falling on their head. Therefore, safety levels will have to be at least an order of magnitude better than the best helicopter today. That brings you to the level of large commercial aircraft. In practice, when you add all of the systems on a large commercial airplane together, for every 10 million flight hours you could theoretically expect one accident, per trip. We use a very structured approach to systems safety analysis, where you build your safety tree, you build a tree of all potential failures, what’s the consequences of a failure, what other systems can take over. That is the way we approach a vehicle like this. That adds complexity, but we know how to handle it. That is how we differ fundamentally from small players in this business. We know how to design and develop vehicles that are capable of achieving certain safety goals. You cannot do it by simply making the equipment you use reliable.

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