Ridesharing giant Uber believes it can leverage its ground network of 93 million monthly platform users and move them into the air—and soon. At the two-day-long Uber Elevate Summit in mid-June in Washington, D.C., Uber revealed its plans for replicating its ground network in the sky, unveiling new electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) designs that could compose its fleet as well as early plans for where it would initially fly its aircraft and the infrastructure that would support its operations.
“The ever-elusive flying car future we have all imagined is one step closer,” Uber Elevate head of product Nikhil Goel said at the opening of the summit on June 11. “It’s closer than most people think.”
What Uber made clear at the summit—attended by 1,500 people from 31 countries—was that it has spent a lot of time and money on the urban air mobility concept and has hundreds of people working to make Uber Air a reality in short order. It’s got an ambitious timeline that calls for it to begin test flying its first eVTOLs in 2020 followed by operations in three pilot cities—Dallas; Los Angeles; and Melbourne, Australia—by 2023.
But even before then, it hopes to gain a better understanding of how its eVTOL ride-sharing service will work through the July launch of Uber Copter, which will transport Uber riders from Manhattan to JFK Airport in New York City using Part 135 operator HeliFlite. “Uber Copter proves out the multimodal stitching of ground and air trips together,” Uber Elevate director of engineering Mark Moore said.
The service will be available through the Uber app and cost between $200 and $225 per person, carrying four to five passengers. It “is something we can start building today,” Uber Elevate director of operations Stan Swaintek explained to attendees. “The aircraft infrastructure is already there,” such as the heliport and established VFR routes.
Uber’s also thinking about where its eVTOLs will pick up passengers, how it will keep their batteries charged between operations as well as the noise its craft will create and the sound parameters they’ll need to operate within.
What’s less clear is whether Uber’s timeline will work with regulators’ schedules. Regulators including FAA interim administrator Dan Elwell and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told attendees they don’t want to stand in the way of progress, but safety—and community buy-in—is paramount to the development of a robust UAM system in the U.S.
Following UAS’s Path
“Safety is always number one,” Chao said. “It is the foundation of everything the department does.” But even as the Department of Transportation and the regulators that fall under it, including the FAA, “address legitimate public concerns about safety, security, and privacy,” Chao promised it won’t hamper innovation and will strive to “avoid overly prescriptive rules. We want to be tech neutral, not command-and-control. We are not in the business of picking winners and losers.”
There are a host of challenges to consider for creating that UAM system, regulators said, not the least of which is what part of the airspace eVTOLs will occupy, how will it be controlled, and, most important, how it will be rendered safe. It most likely will follow the same path as drones, or unmanned aerial systems (UAS). “Integrating UAS into the national airspace system is a good example,” the FAA’s Elwell explained. “Our process is simple: get the data to assess our risks and then create useful regulation and policies where needed. As a point of reference for how fast this industry is moving, the FAA has been registering manned aircraft for 92 years, and after only four years of registering drones, we now have four times as many drones as we have in all the rest of legacy aircraft.”
He likened the pace of UAM integration to the natural progression of a child’s mobility. “Let’s begin this [urban air mobility] integration by working with industry to start crawling with low-risk operations in remote areas gathering data and evaluating safety all the while,” Elwell said. “When we’re ready, we’ll systematically graduate to high-density urban areas with semi-autonomous operations, which will be the walking phase, and eventually the system will mature to fully autonomous operations in busy urban airspace. And we’ll be running.
“And that’s where we cannot fail. Achieving this final state for a radically different new entrant will be an evolutionary process, and it won’t occur overnight. But it also won’t take as long as it used to with yesterday’s FAA.”
During a panel session on low-altitude airspace operations in which much of the conversation focused on the work underway for the safe integration of UAS—unmanned air system traffic management (UTM), remote identification of UAS, and detect-and-avoid anti-collision systems—the FAA official responsible for overseeing that effort also underscored the need for the UAM industry to begin laying the groundwork for public engagement in acceptance of urban air transport systems. “Community outreach is going to be vital,” explained FAA executive director of the UAS integration office Jay Merkle. “We have to have a public that is confident the operations are safe, secure, but also to understand operations and what benefits it brings to their communities. Our experience is, the sooner you engage, the more frequently you engage, the better the interaction with the community.”
‘When the Real Fun Begins’
Uber Elevate’s Moore laid out some basic specifications for what his company is looking for in its eVTOL fleet: four passengers with the fifth seat for a pilot until autonomous flight is proven out; a cruise speed of 150 mph or 130 knots; a 25-mile (22 nm) “sprint” range; and a 60-mile (52 nm) maximum range. In terms of noise produced by the eVTOLs, Uber has set a near-term community noise goal of 15 decibels lower than the Stage 3 limit and an electric powerplant that is 3.5 times as efficient than a traditional gas turbine engine used in a helicopter.
“[The year] 2020 is when the real fun begins, when we actually start testing these aircraft,” he added, “when we prove to the world just how safe, quiet, and how great performing these vehicles are.” Additionally, Moore thinks eVTOLs with wings will be a more efficient design. “High-drag, non-wing multirotors make a great test bed to prove out the technology, but they really don’t have characteristics we want,” he said, which is faster and higher-productivity aircraft.
Bell Flight, Boeing’s Aurora Flight Sciences, Karem Aircraft, Pipistrel Vertical Solutions, Jaunt Air Mobility and EmbraerX were Uber’s eVTOL partners and OEMs exhibiting at the summit, the latter two of which used the event to unveil details of their concept aircraft.
Separately, Uber partner Safran Cabin brought a full-scale mockup of what an eVTOL cabin “needed to be to support the overall ecosystem they are trying to create,” Safran Cabin executive v-p Scott Savian told AIN. Its passenger seats are angled slightly outward for ease of ingress and egress as well as a cabin height that’s comfortable for a 6-foot-4-inch passenger. “We ultimately settled here, which we think is a real smart combination of optimizing the size for the aerodynamics of the vehicle, optimizing the operations, how easy it is to get on and off, and stow your luggage,” Savian added.
While eVTOL makers weren’t willingly sharing details of their development timelines such as anticipated first flight, certification, and full-scale production, Moore expects Uber will have its “first handful of certified products” in 2023, when it can begin Uber Air service in its three pilot cities. By 2028, it plans to begin scaled operations. And between 2028 and 2030, “we believe that’s when autonomy will be ready to be certified,” he said. By then, Uber will have its first 50 to 75 million trips completed. “That will give us the statistical basis to prove autonomous flight and free up the fifth [pilot] seat, which gets us to an even better revenue stream with these vehicles,” Moore stated.
Uber Air will need multiple locations to drop off and pick up passengers, and they will likely serve as a sort of multi-modal transportation hub that Uber is calling its Skyport Mobility Hubs for its ground-ridesharing network as well as its electric-powered Jump scooters and e-bikes. These skyports, which Uber envisions as repurposed existing buildings or new construction, also will provide access to public transportation, and be outfitted to provide electric-vehicle (EV) charging—including for its eVTOLs. Working with local governments as well as mining its own data collected from its ground ridesharing network will help Uber identify the best locations for its skyports.
Uber’s vision for the skyports was demonstrated at the summit through 16 different designs that the company said are “the first fully considered and technically feasible skyports” for a 2023 launch of Uber Air. Eight architecture firms—Beck, BOKA Powell, Corgan, Gensler, Humphreys & Partners Architects, Mithun, Pickard Chilton + ARUP, and SHoP—were invited to unveil their skyport designs at the summit. “With the first launch of Uber Air just a few short years away, this collection of Skyport Mobility Hub concepts establishes a practical, sustainable vision for the infrastructure needed in the communities we plan to serve,” Uber Elevate head of design John Badalamenti said. “These designs represent a synergy of purpose, orchestrating a seamless transition between ground transit like Uber Pool and eVTOL aircraft on the roof tarmac, all while contributing to the surrounding neighborhood.”
The expansiveness of the UAM network Uber hopes to create is making for enticing investment opportunities, private equity firms noted. “If you look at an urban parking lot, a few years ago we actually viewed that as a threatened opportunity,” Oaktree transportation infrastructure fund managing director and co-portfolio manager Josh Connor said during a panel session on UAM investment. “Now we’re taking a different view of it.”
Boeing HorizonX Ventures managing director Brain Schettler added: “It’s an opportunity across industries.”