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Airbus Flying Robo-Taxi Arrives In Oregon To Begin Flight Testing

Airbus A^3
The Vahana prototype after re-assembly in its hangar in Pendleton, Oregon, still awaiting propellers and motors.

A prototype of a single-seat passenger drone has arrived at Pendleton, Oregon's airport for flight testing. That according to the Silicon Valley-based Airbus subsidiary A^3—or “A-cubed”—behind the Vahana Project.

The battery-powered, self-flying aircraft has been reassembled after shipping and is now undergoing ground tests.

In a blog post Monday, project executive Zach Lovering did not say when the first robo-air taxi flight might be, although in an earlier interview with public radio he said the goal was to be airborne before the end of this year.

"We’re excited to report that the wait is over?—?our full-scale aircraft recently made its way north in preparation for flight testing," Lovering wrote. "As Vahana was specifically designed to support rapid disassembly and re-assembly, it took less than a day for the aircraft to be put back together."

Lovering said the first flights will be operated without anyone onboard.

“Because it is self-piloted, we have the luxury of not having to have someone's life at risk,” he said in a late-summer interview in Bend. “So we can give it the commands we want to give it. It will follow those way points. We can do our entire test campaign without putting too much risk to a human life."

An Airbus subcontractor has leased a hangar and mobile command center at Pendleton Airport. The attractions of northeast Oregon to Airbus include uncongested skies and a Federal Aviation Administration-approved unmanned aircraft test range.

The Vahana aircraft takes off vertically, transitions to horizontal flight and lands vertically on a helipad. Paired sets of tilting wings fitted with a total of eight props jut out of the carbon fiber passenger compartment.

Vahana has an estimated range around 40 miles (50-70 km) on a single charge for the roughly 1,600-pound prototype.

Lovering anticipates the FAA certification process will take about three years. The Airbus subsidiary is one of about 20 different companies around the world competing to bring to market electric vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft for urban commuting. Lovering said a two-passenger variant eventually may be the primary production model for the Vahana line.

Airbus envisions additional potential uses as "an urban medevac unit" or cargo transport for military or commercial users.

The name Vahana is an allusion to Hindu mythology and the flying mounts of the deities.

Credit Airbus A^3
Airbus A^3
Rendering of battery-powered personal commuter aircraft under development by Airbus.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.