There are many solutions in development that promise to solve urban traffic problems. However, with some 155 VTOL projects competing for attention and funding, there are a lot of grandiose claims being floated.
One entity that is driving forward in the most organized way is one we don’t normally associate with aviation: Uber.
The California-based ride-sharing company has been making noise about its Uber Air program for several years and is beginning to test Uber Eats food delivery by drones in San Diego. However, rather than just talk, Uber is pushing the entire industry forward through its methodical process of knocking down one hurdle after another. Its progress was detailed at its third annual Uber Elevate Summit, conducted this year in June in Washington, D.C.
Uber is smartly sticking to what it does best: logistics, fleet management, and working with regulators. It is leaving the designing of the eVTOL aircraft (it insists its aircraft must be pure electric—no hybrids) to others who know a thing or two about aerodynamics. But even then, Uber isn’t putting up with a free-for-all from aircraft designers. It has established a set of criteria that such vehicles must meet regarding performance, cabin space, noise signature, and safety. It then carefully screens companies that say they can meet those requirements and chooses to work with only those that appear to be on a trajectory of success and share its safety culture.
At this point that includes six airframe manufacturers—some familiar, others not: Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing company; Bell; EmbraerX; Karem Aircraft; Pipistrel Vertical Solutions; and Jaunt Air Mobility.
Aurora’s Passenger Air Vehicle (PAV) made its first flight in January. However, on its fifth flight, in June, it crashed, damaging the unmanned vehicle—hardly the first proof of concept aircraft to have an accident. PAV uses three rotors on rails on each side of the vehicle for vertical lift and a pusher motor. Bell unveiled its Nexus aircraft earlier this year. It proposes six ducted rotors that, after a vertical liftoff, can be tilted forward in cruise. EmbraerX, a subsidiary of the business jet company from Brazil, is pushing a design that includes eight vertical lift motors on two parallel wings and two ducted pusher motors for cruise. Karem’s Butterfly uses four tiltrotors—one on each wing and one at the tip of each V-tail surface. Pipistrel Vertical Solutions, a subsidiary of the aircraft company making LSAs and other light airplanes—and the Alpha Electro electric LSA—has proposed what appears to be almost a delta wing aircraft with four vertical lift rotors embedded in the wing roots on each side and a pusher electric propeller on the vertical tail.
The newest Uber airframe partner is Jaunt Air Mobility, which was formed in April 2019 after buying the technology and intellectual property of what was once CarterCopter, the company that has attempted to certify a large commercial autogyro. Jaunt puts two electric motors on each wing and uses a powered rotor for vertical lift.
While the airframes could hardly be more different, their cabin sections all have a similar look, size, and shape because that is one of Uber’s demands. In an effort to ensure a similar passenger experience regardless of vehicle, Uber worked with Safran to design a cabin that allows for four passengers and a pilot with ample room for baggage. The Safran mockup was a popular exhibit at the Elevate Summit, with thousands climbing in and out of it over the two-day show. Indeed, it is a comfortable space with sliding doors on each side for easy access.
Under Uber’s longer range plan, the front pilot seat will someday be a prime passenger seat. The company’s goal, which it hopes to achieve by about 2028, is that the vehicles will be autonomous.
Uber plans to begin commercial passenger flights at its pilot cities of Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne, Australia, in 2023. By 2026 it expects to be able to expand the number of cities where Uber Air operates. And by about 2028 it expects a new generation of vehicles and battery technology to be available—and by then expects the vehicles will be able to operate autonomously. Or, more likely, it expects the public will come to accept the idea of autonomous aerial vehicles, as the technology for such flights may well be here much sooner than that.
If Uber meets its goal, within a decade or so you will be able to ride an electric Uber bike, scooter, or car—perhaps autonomous by then—to an urban vertiport, fly across town on Uber Air, and pick up the same sort of ground vehicle at the end to complete your trip; all for about the same price as you might pay for an Uber ride today over the same distance.
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