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Vanderbilt team working with NASA on 'air taxis'

Researchers: transport possible in less than decade
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Posted at 3:01 PM, Jul 09, 2021

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Imagine turning on the TV to see traffic is terrible. Then hailing a flying taxi to get you to work instead.

It's a reality a research team at Vanderbilt is working to make possible, alongside three other university teams and NASA. The biggest challenge, says Vanderbilt Engineering and Computer Science Professor Gautam Biswas, is safety.

"One of the things that NASA and the FAA haven’t worked out yet, and have tasked researchers like us to work out, is how do you manage safety of the air space when so many of these vehicles are flying," Biswas said.

The aircraft currently in development are unmanned and will fly around 1,000 feet above the ground. They will fly higher than future package-carrying unmanned aerial vehicles, and much lower than commercial airplanes.

The artificial intelligence onboard needs to learn enough to properly make one of three decisions when facing danger like bad weather, parts failure or other aircraft in its way.

"I (The AI) can modify my controller, I can continue to do what I was doing and avoid the hazard," explained Biswas, "or I have to change my plan - I'm not going to fly in this direction anymore because it seems pretty hazardous, let me see if I can find an alternate route. And if I'm doing that do I have enough battery power to make it. And third (option) is that things look so bad let me try and land as soon as I can before I crash."

NASA is funding the three-year, $2.5 million dollar program where the local team will play a role in helping the process that the private sector has already begun. Several companies are already developing environmentally-friendly electric vehicles, that can take off and land vertically. Biswas says the optimistic companies have said they'll be flying in five years. He believes it may be closer to a decade before we see the air mobility vehicles take flight in our nation's largest cities.

He envisions executives using it to fly between buildings for meetings when roads are in gridlock. And eventually as a ride-for-hire service such as Uber or Lyft.

"For Nashville, I see it being more because it’s a spread-out city and downtown is not that large, I see it more as a service between the suburbs and the city," Biswas said, "because you know how bad the highways have gotten now."

While most of the testing will be on NASA property, the Vandy team hopes to buy a prototype to perform tests locally toward the end of this year.