Dubai's proposed fleet of flying taxis could be joined in the skies over the city by larger and more powerful passenger carrying drones, if plans by aviation startup Vimana take off.
Vimana is developing an electric-powered, Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft, and a blockchain-based control system, which would make fast and reliable city-wide aerial taxis a reality.
Speaking at the Arab Future Cities Summit in Dubai last week, Vimana CEO and founder Evgeni Borisov, said that the company is proposing a complete ‘Urban Air Mobility' system (UAM), which would be a turnkey solution to enable cities to launch safe and practical aerial transport. The multi-component system includes the aerial vehicle, control systems, setup and support, which will operate as an open architecture ecosystem.
The Vimana AAV, which is due for its first test flights in Moscow later this month, is a tilt-wing eVTOL, which has electric motors powered by electric hybrid power source. The craft will have a 10m wingspan, and will be able to carry a 400kg payload of up to 4 passengers, with a range of 900km and a top speed in sustained flight of up to 150mph (240kph).
Borisov said the initial prototype was developed for a project for surveying for the mining sector in the far east of Russia, so it was built for range, resilience and long flight times. While the mining project did not go ahead, the tilt wing design concept proved to be so successful, in terms of an efficient switch from horizontal to vertical flight, and the ability for the drone to glide that the idea has been amended into a city transport solution.
"The concept was way more than the initial task, it actually found the Holy Grail of VTOL industry, in terms of the fully, 100% safe transition mode from vertical to horizontal flight," he said.
The design is now in its second prototype version, and is due to undergo test flights in a 50% scale version this month, and Vimana says it is also in discussion with authorities in Dubai, along with Singapore, Tokyo, Toronto and Dallas about further testing and possible future deployments.
The company has also developed a smaller cargo version of the drone, which could carry a 150kg payload up to 1,200km. In a city environment, the AAV would likely be converted to electrical power only, he added, which would reduce the range, but would aim to keep the same speed capabilities.
The project has aimed to be compliant with the parameters laid out in Uber's ‘Elevate' concept, which aims to have aerial passenger transport flying by 2020. The Uber Elevate whitepaper, released last year, outlines the requirements for the system covering areas such as safety, noise, fuel emissions, aircraft performance, infrastructure including ‘vertiport' landing pads, and operational capabilities.
Uber's concept would use the ‘Class B' airspace in cities, that is the airspace which is usually occupied by high-volume, high-speed commercial air transport, and controlled by air traffic controllers. Flights in Class B airspace usually require the aircraft to follow Visual Flight Rules (VFR) meaning they have to be able to see where they are going, in comparison to Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), where aircraft can be flown by instrument readings.
In the Uber scenario, most flights through Class B airspace by AAVs will occur at altitudes between 500 and 1,000ft (150-300 m) to maximum maximum case at 1,500ft (450 m), and will allow IFR as well as VFR flying.
Borisov said that one of the problems of increasing aerial traffic in a city, and which has historically limited the sector, is the fact that is has been impractical to fly a large number of aircraft using visual (VFR) controls in a city, and the risk of more pilots meaning more human error incidents. The high cost of employing more pilots has also been a factor in limiting city aviation. Autonomous solutions flying using IFR will partly address this situation, he said, adding that Vimana's solutions can be controlled using existing aviation telemetry systems, with some enhancements, to avoid interfering with other airspace users.
"For the technical part, we are going to employ all currently existing aviation telemetry systems, enhanced with our inhouse-developed solutions to provide increased performance. We are going to be included in current air traffic control systems, and we are going to be safely and reliably interacting with current existing flying levels.
"Airports have huge air traffic, but this air traffic [the AAV] is low down in the flight levels - we are going to avoid the highly inhabited aerospace - but in terms of cities, the class B airspace above them is completely unemployed, so we are going to be a safe and reliable employer of this airspace in total accordance with existing air traffic protocols."
In a smart city situation, the second element of the Vimana system is a distributed blockchain-based control system, which would see each aircraft acting as a node in a control network, exchanging data among themselves, and supplemented with ground based nodes, with more processing power to process more data. The network would carry data on flight paths, passenger requests and so on, acting like a dispatcher for the AAVs.
The solution has been built on the NEM blockchain, which has been coded from the ground up for speed and scale. The blockchain solution (VMX) will not only enable communications and control between the vehicles, but will also be open and extended to other operators who wish to fly their own aerial systems, and to passengers for payments, booking and so on.