This Pittsburgh company is helping take autonomous rides to the next level — by which we mean sky

Airbus’ Vahana, an electric, self-piloted vehicle, will use tech developed by Near Earth Autonomy.

Peregrine aka the sensors created by Near Earth Autonomy

Peregrine aka the sensors created by Near Earth Autonomy

courtesy of Near Earth Autonomy
MJ Slaby

The best way to picture the end of a self-flying — yes, flying — vehicle ride is to to imagine something from the Jetsons, said Sanjiv Singh, CEO of Near Earth Autonomy.

The Pittsburgh company developed sensors and other technology to make those landings happen on Airbus’s Vahana, an electric, self-piloted vehicle, the companies announced today.

In some ways, Singh said there is less to consider in developing a self-driving air vehicle than a self-driving one. Cars have to know when there’s a pedestrian on the street or on the sidewalk and when another car is pulling in or out of a parking spot on the street, he said. But a flying vehicle doesn’t encounter much. There aren’t pedestrians or potholes in the sky, he said. As long as the vehicle can handle weather and the occasional bird, Singh said the biggest worry is landing. Flying can be scripted, but it’s hard to land far from where it took off.

What if there’s something or someone in the way?

What if the vehicle has to make an emergency landing?

Will it know to avoid slopes and vegetation?

That’s where Near Earth, which has worked on sensors and automation for drones and unmanned aircrafts, comes in. The company’s technology helps the flying vehicle be aware of its environment and adjust a landing if need be by using 3-D maps that are used by an onboard computer to asses a location, according to Singh.

Unlike an airplane that comes in for a landing at an angle, these vehicles would make landings that are essentially vertical, he said.

Near Earth’s tech has been customized for Airbus, but Singh hopes that more companies will use it too, as more start working on self-flying vehicles.

Unlike autonomous cars, these vehicles are being developed from scratch. Self-driving cars are cars that are retrofitted with sensors, computing and more to drive themselves. What’s happening here is current vehicles are too big, too expensive and not reliable for urban air travel, so the vehicle is being built first, Singh said.

“Then, we’re going to automate it,” he said.

Come fly with me

Just like with self-driving cars, Singh said there are multiple factors to consider when figuring out how soon hailing an air taxi will become possible.

“We don’t fully understand how soon that would be,” Singh said, adding it’s dependent on cultural acceptance, technology development, air space regulations and more.

The attention on self-driving cars will be helpful for acceptance: “The fact that there are cars that drive by themselves makes it easier to explain what we do,” he said.

Airbus plans to do a full-scale demonstration of Vahana by the end of the year, per a press release.