San Francisco-based ride-hailing company Uber took the wraps off its latest ‘flying car’ prototype at the second Uber Elevate Summit, today, in a bid to showcase the aircraft that will make up the fleet of UberAir – the company’s airborne taxi service it is endeavoring to launch in the next 2-5 years.
The VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) capable aircraft will ferry paying passengers to and from skyports, which the company plans to build a network of on building rooftops.
“We want to create the network around those vehicles so that regular people can take these taxis in the air for longer distances when they want to avoid traffic at affordable prices,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told CBS.
According to Uber officials, the skyports will be designed and equipped to handle around 200 takeoffs and landings per hour, which works out to one every 24 seconds.
While the initial phase of UberAir will involve piloted air taxis, they will be phased out over a period of time and replaced with self-flying, or autonomous, versions.
The prototype, which looks something like a cross between a winged aircraft and a helicopter, gets its lift from four stacked rotors fitted atop wings, while a fifth rotor on the tail of the machine provides the propulsion.
“Stacked co-rotating rotors or propellers have two rotor systems placed on top of each other rotating in the same direction,” says Uber.
“Initial experimentation of this concept has revealed the potential for significantly quieter performance than traditional paired rotors and improved overall performance.”
In the event of a rotor failure, the other rotors will compensate to ensure a safe landing, making the “flying cab” a safer bet than the single-rotor helicopter, claims the company.
Not only is it safer than a chopper, it is eco-friendly as well, running on electricity and not fuel.
Capable of flying 1,000 to 2,000 feet above terra firma at a cruising speed of up to 200mph, these Teslas of the skies, if you will, are much quieter, more efficient, and certainly more cost-effective than your conventional helicopter.
And, once pilots are phased out, UberAir will become cheaper still to operate and consequently more affordable for passengers.
Khosrowshahi told CBS that the four-riders-per-taxi arrangement would reduce the cost per ride, making it affordable for the common man.
“One of the key tenants of this technology is for us to have four riders in each vehicle so that, essentially, the cost per ride goes down to a combination of mass market and sharing, which is really what Uber is all about,” he said.
“Can bring this to the masses – can make it affordable for normal people,” added the Uber chief.
Khosrowshahi envisions this as an app-based service, allowing would be passengers to call an air taxi using the Uber app and reach the nearest skyport at the scheduled time for a pickup.
“The eCRM design is pedestrian friendly, as the propeller blades are as high as possible, leaving ample room for individuals to board and de-plane without having to duck,” Uber explained in a Tuesday statement.
“The high placement of the wings provide shaded entry into the cabin, shielding riders from light rain as they board. Finally, point of entry into the eCRMs is limited to one side, simplifying ground crew operations and reducing confusion for riders when they approach their eVTOL vehicle,” the statement further said.
In February last year, Uber hired the services of Mark Moore – an aeronautical engineer with 30 years experience as a conceptual design engineer of advanced aircraft at NASA – to head the company’s Uber Elevate project.
“I can’t think of another company in a stronger position to be the leader for this new ecosystem and make the urban electric VTOL market real,” Moore told Bloomberg at the time.
In 2010, Mark Moore, researched and published a white paper on the feasibility of electric aircraft with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities.
It inspired Larry Page of Google fame to secretly start and finance Zee Aero and Kitty Hawk – two Silicon Valley startups – to develop the technology, as was reported by Bloomberg Businessweek the year before.
Uber is believed to have impressed Moore with its own white paper on VTOL technology; technical hurdles that needed overcoming; and its long-term vision of taking everyday commute to the air, with the intention of providing noise-free and eco-friendly rapid commute to its customers.
“On-demand aviation has the potential to radically improve urban mobility, giving people back time lost in their daily commutes. Uber is close to the commute pain that citizens in cities around the world feel. We view helping to solve this problem as core to our mission and our commitment to our rider base,” Uber had said in its Uber Elevate white paper of October 27, 2016.
The “flying cars” for UberAir will be developed by Uber engineers in collaboration with reputed aircraft manufacturers like Embraer, Bell and Aurora Flight Services.
Meanwhile, under a new Space Act agreement between Uber and NASA – their second – the space agency will conduct studies on low-altitude air traffic issues, in the Dallas area.
NASA confirmed the signing of the second agreement in a Tuesday statement saying that it was intended to “further explore concepts and technologies related to urban air mobility.”
“Urban air mobility could revolutionize the way people and cargo move in our cities and fundamentally change our lifestyle much like smartphones have,” said Jaiwon Shin, who is part of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.