UBER’s recipe to unleash VTOL & E-AT combinations’ hidden potential
In these last years technological leaps in different industries have made a vast set of technologies available, which could be combined to soon bring what is currently regarded as science-fiction to our day to day life.
Increasingly efficient VTOL aircrafts (Vertical Take-off and Landing) like the Bell V-22 Osprey capable of transporting 24 fully equipped soldiers with a range of 1.650 Km and a top speed of 270 kts. These aircrafts are capable of vertical take-off and landing (urban parking lots and unused space could become the new runways), and once airborne they can tilt their turbo-propellers from vertical to horizontal for flying with the speed and efficiency of planes. The problem is that these aircrafts are polluting, noisy, complicated to drive and demanding to maintain.
The advance of LIDAR and GPS technology that are being applied to AT (autonomous transport) un-manned vehicles to map the surrounding environment in 3D for obstacle avoidance, and get precise coordinates of a vehicles position. This technology is being tested on cars, robots and drones by companies like Uber, Audi, Google, Apple and Amazon amongst many others. The combination of LIDAR and GPS is already enabling cars, rockets and other objects to drive themselves with minimum human intervention, but still it will take huge amounts of effort for it to be compatible with urban unmanned aircraft traffic.
With the booming demand of electric vehicles and electricity storage, lithium-ion batteries are getting cheaper, smaller, lighter, more efficient and more durable while supercharging stations are becoming exponentially faster. Further, electric propulsion is not only increasingly clean and cheap, but also quiet and requires less frequent and cheaper maintenance. Battery density is improving quickly, nevertheless their range and charging speed still have a long way to go before we will get the option of commuting in an electric VTOL.
If we Virtually combine these three technologies we can get a clear understanding of how Uber envisions urban transportation in the 2020’s: cars will fly passengers and goods around cities, Propelled by electric engines, without need of human intervention, you will be able to get rides via the Uber app and they will be called Autonomous E-VTOLs. These aircrafts might sound similar to helicopters, but key advantages differentiate them: 1. the planes will be able adapt their rotor configuration during flight allowing it them to fly like fixed wing airplanes but without the need of runways, 2. since they’ll be electric, the planes would have zero emissions, and produce significantly less noise than helicopters, 3. since they will need no pilot anyone will be able to use the service at lower operating costs, and 4. Flying over traffic will be easier and possibly cheaper than calling a cab, thanks to the Uber app.
Last week Uber held a Über Elevate summit in Dallas, Texas, where the disruptive car sharing company announced it is partnering up with Bell Helicopter, Embraer, Aurora Flight Sciences, Pipistrel Aircraft, Mooney and Charge Point to accelerate its UberAir fleet development. It is also working on a target approach to air traffic control with NASA, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the US Air Traffic Control Association and the Dubai Transport Authority (ATCA) and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). The vision of Uber Elevate is to join manufacturers efforts in the development and deployment autonomous E-VTOLs that will make aviation on demand. A time horizon was set to for the first UberAIR service demonstration to take place at Expo Dubai in 2020, with electric planes ferrying passengers at 150 knots through urban skies to their destinations.
As Uber wrote in its white-paper on Uber Elevate, which it unveiled in October 2016, “Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently, urban air transportation will use three-dimensional airspace to alleviate transportation congestion on the ground…The project will have significant cost advantages over other modes of solving transportation problems, like building new roads, bridges, or tunnels. Since the planes don’t need to follow set routes, it would help avoid congestion and improve commute times” the company said. The company also suggests parking garages and helipads could be repurposed to be used as “vertipods” and “vertistops.” As part of its partnerships with Dubai and Dallas-Fort Worth, Uber will also be working with two real estate holding companies to work on building the infrastructure needed for it. Based on Uber’s calculations, a two-hour drive could potentially only take 15 minutes in a VTOL aircraft. Its key to unlocking this kind of urban air travel is being able to understand demand and pricing. “It’s push a button and get a flight…We think we can start this for roughly the cost of UberX” said Jeff Holden, Uber’s Chief Product Officer.
John Langford, Aurora CEO, said “The Uber Elevate mission is all about low noise, high reliability, and low cost…We have already built and flown the first proof-of-concept aircraft and we’re excited to partner with Uber in accelerating the E-VTOL initiative.”
Mitch Snyder, president & CEO, Bell said: “Uber’s Elevate network is an exciting opportunity for Bell Helicopter to help transform how cities move people and products in the future. While creating a real, viable urban air taxi network isn’t going to happen tomorrow, this future is closer than many people realize. We are optimistic about the positive impact VTOLs will have on addressing transportation challenges in Dallas–Fort Worth and other cities around the globe.”
Antonio Campello, Embraer vice president for corporate innovation, said: “We share the vision that the state of transportation in congested cities is ripe for innovative solutions, such as on-demand aviation. Embraer’s leadership roles in commercial and business aviation were attained through the introduction of disruptive aircraft and services, and we are confident that our DNA will add value to new concepts in urban transportation as well.”
It is not the first time we hear about E-VTOL technology (the last being Airbus and Italdesign’s Pop.UP presented at the 2017 Geneva Motor Show), until now as a small niche toy, but this is not the case since Uber operates in over 500 cities worldwide and estimates that it would be managing fleets composed by an average of 500 to 1.000 units per city during the next 10 years; for this reason we are confident that Uber has what is needed for this business case to be a realistic and appropriate market application for E-VTOL aircrafts.