A3, an Airbus subsidiary, has revealed plans to fly a prototype of a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) electric and autonomous aircraft called “Vahana” by 2017.  The company hopes to introduce a formal demonstrator of the aircraft by 2020.

The aircraft will follow predetermined flight paths, with only minor changes to avoid obstacles. In the event of a severe malfunction, the Vahana will deploy a ballistic parachute that works even at low altitudes. A3 believes the technology will be compatible with future airspace management systems and will allow more aircraft to share the sky.

As A³ CEO Rodin Lyasoff explains: “The aircraft we’re building doesn’t need a runway, is self-piloted, and can automatically detect and avoid obstacles and other aircraft. Designed to carry a single passenger or cargo, we’re aiming to make it the first certified passenger aircraft without a pilot.”

Lyasoff added that Vahana “sits at the convergence of trends in urban demographics and rapid improvements” in a number of technologies, including batteries, advanced sensors, and mass-produced lightweight composite structures. Because of advances in composites manufacturing, manufacturers can produce small, lightweight aircraft at high volumes and significantly lower costs than traditional aerospace methods have previously allowed.

Airbus has been at the forefront of composite manufacturing in aviation for years, most notably in its A350, which features the XWB model wing made with carbon fiber.

Similarly to the A350 project, Airbus is not working on Vahana alone, according to Lyasoff. The company has already gathered ideas from various aerospace, software, operations research companies. He also notes that the company will release many of its internal tools and flight code under an open source license.

“We believe that this degree of openness will push the industry as a whole forward, and we hope that others will follow our example,” he said.