#Asia Uber wants to roll out flying taxis in Singapore within 3 years, will use VTOL aircraft with Uber Elevate

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The new initiative is called ‘Uber Elevate’ and will make use of Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) aircrafts

Uber’s vision of a ride-hailing port

“Where we are going, we don’t need roads,” Doctor Emmett Brown tells Marty Mcfly as they ride their Delorean into the year 2015. The iconic 80s sci-fi film, Back to the Future II, painted a utopian, optimistic picture of the future –one where flying cars, hovering skateboards, self-tying shoes, and funky chest pads were staples of everyday life.

The year is now 2017. Those unsightly chest pads have, thankfully, not materialised. Self-tying shoes? Nike has begun developing themHovering skateboards? Well, let’s just say you won’t see Nirvana-shirt-and-ripped-jeans-wearing teenagers doing the half-pipe on them any time soon.

As for flying cars, the advent of drone and autonomous-driving technology has made it possible for them to be rolled out en masse to the public within the next few years — in the form of taxis.

Dubai announced this year that it would trial driverless flying drone taxis built by a Chinese company called Ehang, and last month, the Singapore government said that by 2030, aerial transport would be a viable means of urban transportation.

Now, ride-hailing giant Uber is stepping into a game with an initiative it calls ‘Uber Elevate’. Seven years after it upended the taxi industry with its ride-hailing app, it may yet whip out another game-changing feature. Here’s how.

Why Uber says its solution is safe and efficient

Currently, helicopters provide the best alternative to planes for short-distance travels; they can take off and land vertically and they are also more cost-effective than planes for small passenger loads.

Last year, Uber and its rival Grab even experimented with helicopter rides last year.  Through these test trials gave Uber were able to gather clear insights into the helicopter’s inefficiencies.

In a presentation to the media today at Uber’s office in Singapore, Nikhil Goel, Head of Product for Advanced Programs at Uber Technologies, said that these helicopters generate too much noise due to their rotor blades, and more noise is generated as their speed increased — an obvious no-no for inner city travel.

Additionally, the helicopters were not energy efficient and were bad for emissions, and they were generally not safe in the long run. In fact, helicopters do not have the best safety records in the aviation industry.

The development of VTOL (pronounced vee-tol) vehicles, an acronym for Vertical Take-off and Landing, has, however, the potential to shake up the industry. The driverless drone aircrafts from Ehang and Volocopter fall under this category.

Also Read: Russo-American company builds Return of the Jedi-inspired drone bike

Goel said that Uber will be working with VTOL-makers to build its fleet of passenger aircraft. The goal of Uber, he said, was to develop an efficient and sustainable network for these VTOL vehicles to reach commuters.

Addressing urban concerns

The VTOL vehicles will use an electric propulsion motor system, which is one way to significantly reduce engine noise. And since they are powered by batteries, they produce no operational emissions. On one charge, Uber’s VTOL vehicle will be able to fly for 200 km and as high as 800 metres. Goel said it would take three to four minutes to charge 30 Km worth of flight power.

Safety is going be paramount if the take-up rate is going to be more than Uber’s testing team. To this end, the company envisions a multiple electric motor framework so that if one motor fails, the system can redistribute propulsion to other motors.

But if all the motors fail, ballistic parachutes will be deployed so the VTOL vehicle can glide slowly to the ground with minimal impact to the passengers (hopefully). Of course, the effectiveness of this fail-safe system is still preliminary at this stage and there are other factors to consider, for example, what if it drops into the middle of a highway, would cars going at over 100 km per hour be able to stop in time?

Goel said that (unlike Dubai’s driverless drones) Uber’s VTOL vehicle will operate on an autonomous and ‘optional pilot’ system. The goal is to eventually reach a stage where the VTOL vehicle will be piloted autonomously but at this juncture, there will be an Uber Elevate pilot in every VTOL vehicle.

To qualify as an Uber Elevate pilot, naturally the requirements are different from that of a regular Uber driver. But Goel said that it does not mean that only fully certified helicopter pilots can qualify.

The control mechanism behind VTOL vehicles are quite different from helicopter. VTOL vehicles use a fly-by-wire system, which are essentially digital systems that take away the need for complex analog or mechanical interfaces. These digital systems are already integrated into some airliners, but Uber’s VTOL vehciles will be controlled exclusively by them.

In a white paper published by Uber, it said that “digital data across each element of the propulsion system is managed through redundant master flight controllers, from battery cell voltage state of charge to motor temperatures that permit optimisation of the system performance and health.” The key takeaway from that load of jargon is that VTOL vehicle controls are designed to be as easy as driving a car. For that reason, Goel said that certification processes for Uber Elevate pilots should be significantly less rigorous than getting a helicopter pilot license.

It should be noted that conventional helicopters are among the most difficult types of aircraft to control manually, due to the need to cancel out the effects of a single overhead rotor through the use of the tail rotor. The angle between the main and tail rotors also contribute to the aircraft’s noise, and Uber’s reference design seems to indicate multiple overhead rotors, which should address this.

But where to land?

Rolling out its network of VTOL vehicle ports (or hubs) would not be expensive. Goel said Uber will utilise existing infrastructure such as the rooftops of shopping malls, office buildings, or multi-story carparks. Unlike planes, which require large hangars and long stretches of land to be cleared for airstrips, VTOL vehicles can lift off and land vertically so all they need is a designated spot.

Also Read: Drones are great for both play and work, and Techie Hacienderos just topped the first Skyeye Drone Race

To be cost effective, all of Uber’s VTOL vehicles will have to be filled to capacity before it takes off (maximum four passengers), a concept it takes after its carpooling feature; except that unlike UberPool, Uber will provide passengers their first-mile transport to its VTOL vehicle hubs via its cars, and then, their last-mile transport to their final destination once it has landed.

Goel said that Uber is targeting developed cities with dense traffic such as San Francisco and Singapore for its first roll out. For Singapore, Uber wants to trial VTOL vehicle hubs in two places with the highest commuter traffic: Changi Airport and the Central Business District, by the next three years.

The grand vision is to build 50 VTOL vehicle hubs that encompass not just commerce districts but also public housing areas such as Bishan. Uber wants to eventually launch up to 1,200 VTOL vehicle and up to 350,000 trips per day.

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Image Credit: Uber

 

 

 

 

 

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