Uber Unveils the Flying Taxi It Wants to Rule the Skies
If you trust the folks with their eyes tilted upward and their hands waving in the air, flying taxis could be a traffic panacea, leveraging the third dimension to make room for everyone. Uber is among the most fervent believers, and today the company revealed the vehicle it hopes will realize this congestion killer: the aspirationally—if not inspirationally—named Common Reference Model.
The concept is all-electric, and seats four people plus a pilot, in single file in a slim, cylindrical body with large windows. The design, reminiscent of a catamaran, features streamlined nacelles suspended high on each side, on slender supports. These are the battery pods. On top of each, and atop two smaller, even farther outboard pods, sit stacked rotors, which provide the electric vertical lift for takeoff and landing. At the very back, where the tail would be on a conventional plane, a propeller faces forwards, ready to power horizontal flight. There’s just one door, on one side, to simplify ground operations. No need for extra steps or worrying about people exiting on the wrong side into an active landing pad.
The concept is supposed to cruise at between 150 and 200 miles per hour, up to 2,000 feet above the ground. A single charge will be good enough for 60 miles of range, and Uber expects the thing to need just five minutes to top up the batteries between flights. Initially, they’ll have a human pilot, but eventually, they should be autonomous.
The WIRED Guide to Drones
The thing is, Uber has no intention of building this thing, at least not on any sort of scale. Like it is with cars, Uber wants to be the middle man, connecting pilots and passengers. It hopes to launch a commercial service, UberAir, with demonstration flights starting in 2020 in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, and Los Angeles. The problem is that while cars exist, flying cars don’t. That’s why it’s hosting the Uber Elevate summit in LA this week, where 700 players from industry, government, and academia can come together and talk about making this whole flying taxi thing real.
But the network Uber wants to build only really works if it can support vehicles from a variety of manufacturers. That’s why it made the Common Reference Model: This is the kind of vehicle Uber would like to see, with the sorts of specs and practical features that would allow different aircraft to run the same routes and share infrastructure. “These concepts are neutral ground that Uber has put together, so we can share insights with all of our partners” says Rob McDonald, Uber’s head of vehicle engineering.
The team that designed the concept is led by Mark Moore, Uber’s director of aviation engineering, who spent 30 years at NASA pioneering electric propulsion machines. His work there culminated in the X-57, a small plane with 12 electric propellers dotting the length of the wings. The X-plane program, which develops one-off demonstrator vehicles, is a good model for Uber’s concept. The aircraft prove what’s possible—supersonic flight, radical wing designs, fly-by-wire—and then invite the rest of the industry to make it widespread.
As nonsensical as it may seem, flying cars are on the brink of takeoff. Looking at the combination of new lightweight materials, batteries that can store more energy and cost less, and distributed electric propulsion, experts say an electric vehicle that can carry several people around a city is entirely reasonable. Airbus is busy testing its Vahana multicopter. Workhorse’s SureFly personal electric flying machine just took off for the first time.
To shore up its aerospace know-how, Uber is working with respected companies like helicopter manufacturer Bell, plane builder Embraer, and Aurora Flight Sciences, part of Boeing, to design a new class of flying vehicles it could eventually integrate into a network. “Our partners are very capable of designing, certifying, and building conventional aircraft, so what we’re doing is focusing on what’s really different,” says Moore.
In particular, that’s electric propulsion, allowing for multiple short-hop trips and a fast turn-around time, and minimizing noise. No existing planes and helicopters can boast that full range of skills. Each company is working on that now, but Uber hopes to unify their efforts with its concept, so it gets the vehicle it needs. Anything too wildly different would need different landing or charging infrastructure, or perhaps just make it incompatible with the network.
To prove it’s serious, Uber made this concept—the third of its kind—simpler and more realistic. Unlike its initial vision, this one doesn’t have complicated rotating nacelles such as a tilt-rotor, which swivels in-flight to transition from vertical lift to forward movement. “That lets you get to increased performance but at the price of complex joint that could have maintenance,” says Moore. Instead, it has a more reliable series of rotors that handle vertical flight, and that one on the tail for going horizontal.
Having two propellers stacked on top of each other, spinning in the same direction, provides redundancy in case one fails. Uber says initial tests also show that this concept is quieter than previous designs, which will be important flying over densely habited cities. And they’re all mounted safely above the head-height of passengers climbing in and out.
Uber’s timeline calls for commercial flights in just five years. Making that happen depends on getting everybody on the same page—and into the air, together.