Uber Air - Drone Taxi Future?
Uber has an ambitious plan that could see us enjoying inexpensive on-demand flights soon. Dubbed Uber Air, the plan involves the introduction of drone taxis which the company hopes to be soaring across the skies as early as 2023.
But, is this feasible? Can we have a taxi-like transport network operating from the skies within the next four years?
Uber is Adamant It Can Happen!
Speaking at a press conference recently, Uber’s head of aviation, Eric Allison, reiterated that they want to make it real.
“It's something that currently only exists in science fiction fantasies, but we want to make it real,” said Allison. “Indeed, we are already past the research phase. Now, we are at the point where the vehicles will be employed commercially.”
In addition to these speeches, we’ve also seen Uber unveil the first full-scale mockup of the futuristic drone. The cabins, which comprise two rows of passenger seats, accommodating a total of four passengers, feature an abundance of white and black with plenty of room behind the back seats for luggage. Blue lighting gives the interior something of a party-bus vibe.
Passengers will be able to hail the taxis via the Uber smartphone app, just like we do today with car taxis.
How the Drone Taxi Works
The technology behind Uber’s drone taxis is known as eVTOL, which is short for Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing. The drones, designed with the help of Bell Aircraft Corporation, have four sets of twin rotors used for vertical lift and one rotor for forward-propulsion. They travel at 150-200 miles/hour at altitudes of 1,000-2,000 feet.
An Uber drone taxi can travel 60 miles on a single charge, though recharging in-between trips is possible. According to Uber, it takes eight (8) minutes to recharge a drone taxi fully. Recharging is done at rooftops that Uber calls Skyports. Passenger boarding and disembarking will also happen at these Skyports.
When it comes to transportation costs, each passenger will pay $6/mile. That cost would, however, come down to as little as $2/mile for pooled rides over long distances. Uber hopes to have at least 300 drones taxis in each city by 2025. By 2030, they envision having 50 drone cities, each with 50 helipads and thousands of drone taxis.
But, Can they Overcome the Glaring Challenges?
Unfortunately, it’s not going to be easy. Even if they pass the design phase, they’ll have to overcome multiple regulatory roadblocks to commence commercial operations.
For one, although the FAA is tentatively on board, it has indicated that the large “volume of traffic” may need controlling. Responding to a CNET publisher via email, an FAA spokesperson recently said: “integrating those aircraft into a mature aviation system will take considerable effort.”
Secondly, the FAA recently revealed that regulating unpiloted aircraft, which Uber hopes to introduce by 2030, would be very difficult. That’s because the regulations, as currently designed, revolve around having a human pilot. In the absence of human pilots, the aviation regulator would be forced to bin its current laws and draft a new set of regulations. This may not happen as fast as Uber hopes.
The FAA, through Acting Administrator, Dan Elwell, subtly addressed this timeline issue at the recently concluded Uber Elevate Conference. Elwell made it very clear that in the past ten years, the regulatory body has approved just one new aircraft type. To expect them to approve several unmanned aircraft designs by 2023, therefore, is impractical.
Lastly, NASA, the body tasked with helping the FAA develop data to form new aerospace regulations, doesn’t have a Governing Council meeting until 2021. NASA’s GC1 is scheduled for 2021, with the GC2 scheduled for 2022. It’s only at these meetings where Uber can present their Urban Air Mobility (UAM) plans. The company is expected to prove the airworthiness of its UAM vehicles, design readiness, and operations robustness at GC1. Then, at GC2, they’ll need to address critical safety and integration barriers.
Even if NASA is satisfied with everything Uber presents at GC1 and GC2, it will take regulators one or two years to digest all the data from planned trials and propose a new set of complex regulations for UAM. And, that’s assuming no revisions are required – which is highly unlikely. Can all this happen by 2023? It would take a miracle.
In Short, 2023 Might Not Be the Year
There’s a good chance we’ll see commercial drone taxis at some point in the future. But, it’s likely to be after, not by, 2023. So, as the Director of Engineering for Elevate Cloud Services, Tom Prevot, points out, there’s no need to “boil the ocean” on this one. Let’s be patient. Let’s give Uber and the other people involved time to “test the new systems conservatively and scale them over time.” We’ll get there eventually.