The Driverless Decade: Part II - Autonomous Aircraft

Lawren Henderson
Staff Writer at Cluster

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We continue our four-part series on the Driverless Decade where we speculate that the 2020s, for better or worse, will usher in the end of the human navigator. Previously, we examined the current and future state of autonomous land vehicles; now we turn our sights to the skies.

Pilotless Passenger Aircraft

Which will be the first to find mass adoption: driverless cars or pilotless planes? If you think about it, a flying car is just a giant drone that carries people. And since it cruises in the sky, there’s no need to worry about the inconveniences of pedestrians or traffic. In a way, autonomous flying cars or air taxis might be easier to integrate into society than those of the wheeled variety. This could be the thinking of the great many companies currently spending hundreds of millions of dollars to bring air taxis into reality.

Backed by investors that include Intel, Toyota, and JetBlue, aviation startup Joby Aviation is developing an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that will be guided with AI and autonomous technology. The company, which just recently announced a massive $590 million Series C funding round, has struck a multiyear partnership with Uber to shuttle customers in its aircraft starting in 2023.

Uber appears to be doubling down on its air taxi hand. At CES 2020, the ridesharing giant announced a partnership with Hyundai to build a four-seat, electric flying vehicle that Uber users will be able to hail via the app. The first working prototype is also scheduled for liftoff in 2023, and while a human pilot will navigate the craft initially, autonomous software is also being developed to handle the job once the technology proves reliable.

And you better believe that heritage planemakers (there’s really only two if we’re being honest) are hopping on the air taxi bandwagon. In 2017, Boeing acquired Aurora Flight Sciences which specializes in autonomous and robotic aircraft. At the time of the announcement, Aurora had flown over 30 unpiloted flights. Then there’s Boeing’s arch-rival Airbus, which has established a division devoted to urban air mobility. The French aerospace manufacturer developed a self-piloting aircraft, Vahana, that flew its final test flight in November 2019. Airbus intends to use insights and technology gleaned from the project to develop a new generation of eVTOL aircraft.

We have to mention Chinese drone maker Ehang which showcased its autonomous air taxi powered by 16 electric rotors in North Carolina this past January. Ehang plans to test more flight routes and establish “vertiports” where its aircraft can take off and land.

And let's not forget Hawthorne-based Skyryse which is taking a pragmatic approach to self-piloting aircraft by retrofitting current model helicopters with autonomous technology. Ground-based sensors embedded in the helipad enable pilotless navigation and obstacle avoidance. The startup has already demonstrated the viability of the technology in demonstrations.

Pilotless Cargo Delivery Aircraft

It’s the opposite of a secret that Amazon, Uber, and UPS are all developing fleets of drones capable of making deliveries, but they’re not the only ones in on the autonomous aerial logistics game. In fact, Zipline, headquartered in San Francisco, has been operating a drone delivery system in Rwanda since 2016. The company is able to provide life-saving vaccines, blood and medicines to rural areas using the world's largest autonomous logistics network. The company is expanding operations to the United States, Ghana, India, and the Philippines.

Aerial cargo transportation doesn’t have to take passenger safety or comfort into account, allowing Elroy Air to speed development of its hybrid-electric VTOL aircraft capable of carrying over 300 lbs of cargo a distance of 300 miles. Because Elroy’s hybrid design doesn’t require any major charging infrastructure to operate, the company could commercialize its services ahead of its competitors.

So what about heavy cargo? Well, Sabrewing Aircraft Company is working on that. While many companies attempt to move cargo by retrofitting a manned aircraft into an unmanned one, Sabrewing is designing its own models from scratch that are capable of carrying 4,400-pound payloads. The vehicles also provide advanced systems for navigation and obstacle avoidance.

Other UAV Applications

There seems to be dozens of use cases for UAVs, but one of the newest and most interesting is an autonomous security drone unveiled by Sunflower Labs at CES 2020 this year. The roving, camera-equipped aerial robot is designed to patrol a house or estate and react to its surroundings. They are also capable of detecting and differentiating the movements of people, animals and cars, and relaying the information to a map in real-time.

And no UAV list of applications is complete without the inclusion of farm drones, which are forecasted to exceed $1 billion in sales and 200,000 shipped units by 2024. Farmers have become reliable adopters of UAVs, using the technology to monitor crop and livestock conditions by air. They can also deploy the tech to survey land, as well as crop dust fertilizers and pesticides with incredible precision. John Deere, which is integrating autonomous technology into its tractors, is working with Volocopter on a VoloDrone-based aerial crop-dusting system.

Be sure to check out part 3 of our series on driverless ships for cruising and exploring the seas. And if you missed part I on land vehicles, we've linked it for your convenience.

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Published on
January 22, 2020