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Airbus to run parcel-delivery drone trial, and maybe one for flying taxis in S'pore

Airbus Helicopters signed a contract with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore last year to test a drone parcel-delivery service on the campus of the National University of Singapore in mid-2017.


AVIATION giant Airbus said it will reveal more details "in the coming months" about an unmanned parcel-delivery drone trial in Singapore, one that could be extended to transporting passengers too.

Its comments come a day after the city-state's Ministry of Transport told The Business Times that it is talking to some firms about trying out human-carrying drones as a mode of transport. No additional details were shared then.

When approached by BT and asked whether it was exploring such a possibility in Singapore, Airbus said: "Airbus is heavily involved in studying the future of urban mobility with several projects underway, including the Skyways initiative in Singapore.

"This project is ongoing and we will provide an update on the trial phase in the coming months."

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The project came into being after an agreement signed in February 2016 between Airbus and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS). Under the contract, the Europe-based plane-maker is to test a drone parcel delivery service on the campus of the National University of Singapore in mid-2017.

But that's not all: Airbus says on its website that after that pilot, it is hopeful that commercial projects can be launched in Singapore, and that testing can be extended to "passenger transport".

Air traffic-management researcher Mohamed Faisal bin Mohamed Salleh noted that Airbus is already developing concepts that will enable commuters to fly over traffic jams at the push of a button.

"We know that developers in France and Germany are working on an electrically-operated platform concept for multiple passengers," the deputy director at the Air Traffic Management Research Institute (ATMRI) of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) told BT. ATMRI is a joint research centre by NTU and CAAS.

This Airbus platform, which goes by the working name CityAirbus, would have multiple propellers and resemble a small drone in its basic design, said Prof Faisal.

On Wednesday, Pang Kin Keong, the top official at Singapore's Transport Ministry, told BT that it is working with some companies to put human-carrying drones through tests.

In his speech at the Business Times Leaders' Forum that day, he had presented some examples of prototyped human-carrying drones - the Hoversurf Scorpion, the Volocopter VC200 and the Ehang 184 autonomous aerial vehicle.

By the year 2030, he said, it would be conceivable to ride in a driverless pod to work, cycle to the gym after work, and then take an aerial taxi home.

"In 2030, you bet your money that aerial transport will also be a means of urban mobility."

Alex Atamanov, the chief executive officer-cum-founder of the Russian startup Hoversurf, which prototyped the Hoversurf Scorpion, told BT that though his company has not been in talks with the Singapore government, it was "very interested in this dialogue".

Urban mobility researchers are divided on the issue, with some excited about the prospects of flying taxis, and others, hesitant about their being made available to the masses.

ATMRI's Prof Faisal said: "Singapore has the motivation to enable aerial taxis in its urban environment. Our future and advanced urban infrastructure could very well support the new era of urban transportation."

But Alexander Erath, project leader of the engaging mobility group at the Singapore-ETH Future Cities Laboratory, was reticent.

He noted that heavy investments must be made to have the necessary infrastructure such as take-off and landing points for flying taxis to operate.

Regulations about airspace management and noise pollution will also have to be looked into.

And even after these issues are resolved, he said, there may still be a "last-mile" issue to overcome - that of passengers needing to figure out how to get to and from the take-off and landing points.

"As a niche product, flying taxis have their purpose," he told BT.

"But it's a new technology, a new concept that may become cheaper to build."

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