When Uber announced late last year that it would introduce a flying version of its popular ride-hail service, the idea was met with widespread skepticism.
Well, during Tuesday's Uber Elevate conference in Los Angeles, Uber announced several heavy-hitting partnerships that give credence to the idea that ride-hailing could be coming to L.A.'s skies in as little as five years. The service is expected to use small, electric aircraft that can fly four people at a time over the city.
Uber says its goal is to launch flight demonstrations in 2020 and commercial trips by 2023. Los Angeles and Dallas, Texas, will be the first cities to get the new service called uberAir.
“This gargantuan effort to 'push a button, get a flight' can only be accomplished through close partnership across the public and private sectors, and that's exactly what the Elevate Summits are all about," said Jeff Holden, Uber's chief product officer.
Uber announced Tuesday that it had signed Karem Aircraft to develop an eVTOL, or electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle. Karem Aircraft, which developed the Predator drone, will make a new rider-friendly adaptation called Butterfly.
Uber says EVTOLs will be quieter, safer, more affordable and more environmentally friendly than helicopters.
Two eVTOL designs were also revealed, including the first eVTOL from Uber partner Embraer. The 50-year-old aircraft maker developed the vehicle with extensive input from potential urban air travelers about their desired experience, the company said.
The other concept revealed Tuesday was from the Slovenian aircraft maker Pipistrel. The concept could carry between two and six passengers and could go longer distances at higher speeds than previous models, with lower operating costs. Pipistrel won the 2011 NASA Green Flight Challenge with its electric G4 concept, which could carry up to four passengers as far as 100 miles at an average speed of 108 miles per hour.
NASA itself announced Tuesday that it has signed a Space Act Agreement with Uber "to explore concepts and technologies for urban air mobility (UAM)." Under the agreement, Uber plans to share its requirements for UAMs based on future operational concepts for what it's calling the world’s first urban aviation rideshare network.
For its part, NASA will assess the impacts of integrating UAM operations in an urban environment. It's NASA’s first agreement specifically focused on modeling and simulating UAM operations.
Last year, Uber signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA focused on the development of new Unmanned Traffic Management concepts for Unmanned Aerial Systems.
NASA said it's "considering opportunities with a wide range of industry partners to conduct studies, research or joint flight tests to explore UAM concepts and technologies. These activities will generate the data necessary to support the creation of industry standards, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules and procedures, and other regulations."
Uber also announced it's partnering with the U.S. Army Research Development and Engineering Command to develop new rotor technology for uberAir that is significantly quieter than vehicles powered with more traditional rotors. Uber and the Army's research lab will spend a combined $1 million.
Here are the details of how uberAir might play out in Los Angeles, according to Uber Elevate CEO Eric Allison:
NASA's role in getting uberAir off the ground
This is another Space Act Agreement that we’ve signed with them. And the focus of this one is specifically urban air mobility, whereas the previous one was more generally looking at traffic management … How would a system like this really work and integrate into an existing air control environment. NASA is bringing their simulation capabilities and their knowledge of air space management to better think about safety and the effects on existing air traffic control systems in some specific areas.
UberAir service will have pilots
We’re actually going to start piloted, so all of our vehicles will have pilots in them when we launch, both our demonstration flights in 2020 as well as our actual commercial service that we have announced we’ll be launching in 2023.
Stackable "sky lanes"
Our director of air space operations is a 20-year NASA veteran who was leading a lot of the air space work they were doing at one of their research centers. He’s looking at different concepts of these different aerial lanes -- dynamically allocated spaces in the sky that can handle pretty high through-put of vehicles and the system will take care of the conflicts. It will be dynamically routed and automated for vehicles on our network.
The air space is pretty big, so there’s a bunch of different concepts that we’ve looked at. Clearly, we want to take advantage of the 3D space of the air. That’s one of the main advantages of this mode of transportation is that you’re not limited by the built infrastructure on the ground that is really the source of most congestion, so we have different concepts along those lines that we’re looking at.
Pipistrel, based in Slovenia, is one of several aircraft makers that has partnered with Uber on a flying ride-hail service. The new Pipistrel concept unveiled during the Uber Elevate conference in L.A. can carry between 2 and 6 passengers and co go longer distances at higher speeds than previous models.
UberAir will fly above buildings
Probably 1,500 to 2,000 feet. Somewhere in that range. That’s kind of the typical height of a light helicopter today. It would be way above any built up infrastructure. Height for these electric airplanes, you won’t hear them either. If you’re on the ground, they’ll be essentially silent.
Quiet is necessary for community acceptance of a flying ride-hail
We think that’s a major, major requirement that we are putting onto our vehicle partners. We have to hit these noise targets. One of the blockers of being able to scale this is community acceptance, so we have to take that really seriously from the very beginning.
We’re still doing some foundational work on how quiet they need to be. We’ve laid specific targets out for our vehicle partners. We haven’t released those publicly at this point. From the white paper we put out last year, the goal is to have these be quiet enough that they essentially are not much more noticeable outside the urban background noise that exits. We’re doing surveys of background noise-scapes in different urban areas to build up our understanding of that so we can better tune the requirements we’re giving our vehicle partners.
The vehicles themselves will cruise once they take off and get up and become wing born. They’ll cruise at something like 150 mph is a target we’ve set for that. But the overall trip time is going to be a function of other things. We’re doing a lot of modeling. What is the first and last mile -- that initial distance you have to get to the sky port to get to the vehicle and then where the sky port is relative to your final destination.
Sky ports will be the hubs for takeoff and landing
We’re actually modeling all of this out to be able to site the sky ports to minimize that so our riders have a magical experience end to end so you can push a button and significantly reduce the travel time for these highly congested areas.
We haven’t set any specific numbers yet, but what we’re doing for sky port siting and location is deep data analysis to understand the tradeoffs. And we’re also developing partnerships with infrastructure folks.
We’re looking at concepts both on top of buildings and on the ground, so we’ve done a bunch of different studies on this and we think the right answer will be a heterogeneous network. Some things will be on the ground and other things will be on the tops of buildings. There’s a lot of valuable unused real estate on top of buildings that we think could be put to pretty good use in this regard.
Vehicles will be all-electric vertical takeoff and landing
What we’ve targeted for operation on our network is four passenger seats and a pilot, so five seats total. And some of the partners are designing variants for other potential uses.
What we rolled out today is something we’re calling our ECRM 3, which is ... a fully battery-propelled airplane.
Is Los Angeles ready
I think that the city’s pretty supportive of what we’re doing and we’re engaging with them pretty heavily with our local policy team. In fact, Mayor Garcetti gave us an opening statement that we showed at the start of the summit.
The greatest challenges
The greatest challenge is we’re trying to build an eco system. I think that one of the reasons we’re putting on this summit is to continue to build that eco system and to push people forward to be excited about this and to want to be part of this eco system, because we strongly believe that no one can do this alone. We’re trying to build a new system of transportation, so it’s going to require a lot of people investing in different spaces simultaneously altogether to make this happen.