Are Drones the answer to urban mass transit challenges?

One company thinks they could be. Mark Moore is Engineering Director for Vehicle Systems at Uber Elevate, Uber’s light-aircraft ridesharing project. There he is working the next generation of urban mobility solutions that involve air passenger drones. Prior to joining Uber, Mark worked for NASA for over 32 years, the entire time focusing on conceptual design studies of advanced aircraft concepts. His research focused on understanding how to best integrate the emerging technology area of electric propulsion and automation to achieve breakthrough on-demand aviation capabilities. He left NASA for Uber to make electric VTOL flight a reality. In this episode of the Drone Radio Show, Mark talks about Uber’s passenger drones, its planned future commuter service and its impact on cities and regions.

In This Episode

  • Introduction. Mark Moore is the Engineering Director of Vehicle systems for Uber Elevate, task with developing the company’s passenger air ridesharing service. Prior to joining Uber, Mark was with
  • NASA for 32-years, the entire time working on vertical takeoff and landing aircrafts technology. Two and half years ago, he was approached by Uber to look at commercializing the technology. At NASA, Mark help produce 3 prototypes of VTOL aircrafts, so the technology exists already.
  • Distributed Electric Propulsion. VTOL technology is made possible through the application of ‘distributed electric propulsion’, which uses several small, high efficient electric motors and controllers distributed on the airframe to produce lift and horizontal movement. The several small electric motors (6-18 engines) provide a high degree of control, speed and are much quieter than conventional engines. There is also a high degree of redundancy in the design, adding to the safety aspect.
  • Flight Concept. Uber expects flight ranges of their aircraft to be 50-60 miles, due to battery life constraints. This flight distance is perfect for inter-city travel from strategically located air hubs. It’s about urban air mobility and being able to provide very rapid transit to people living in major metropolitan areas, where there’s a high trip density, rather trying to connect city to city. That would require longer distances and better batteries. There are more trips to serve in a metropolitan area with shorter distances, so it makes it a more vibrant and robust market opportunity>
  • City Design. Air mobility gives city planners a new tool to address traffic congestion and gridlock. Instead of being limited to a two dimensional plane, air mobility is able to overcome geographic barriers, like water, bridges or lack of available right-of-way. Skyports will encourage clustering, much like subway and light rail hubs. It is the future evolution of a multi-modal transportation solution, encourage higher densities, greater mixed-uses and pedestrian activity.
  • Drones or Not Drones. Because the aircraft will be piloted (for at least the first 10-15 years), they are not called drones. Instead the terms aerial ride sharing or urban air mobility is most descriptive of the vehicles and service. The company needs to conduct several million trips with the autonomy with the vehicle intelligence to prove that the vehicle is ready to fly; similar to what is being done on the ground with self-driving cars. Once Uber can do several million flights and prove out the software, then they’ll look at replacing the pilot and make them autonomous.
  • How It Will Work. Uber’s air passenger service will work seamlessly with its current service. A rider opens the Uber App and will be presented with several different options. Uber Air will be one more option that’s available and will provide significant time savings. An Uber ride sharing car pick the rider up and take them to the closest Skyport, where the aircraft fly to and from. The aircraft will land at another Skyport closest to the destination, where another Uber driver will complete the trip. Riders will be able to get on an aircraft and fly across the city at 150-200 mph while the rest of the city is stuck in traffic.
  • Level of Service. Mark estimates that each Skyport, depending on its design and location, will be able to accommodate 150-1000 aircraft per hour. At 4 persons per craft, that is 600-4,000 people per hour. At this level of service, aerial ridesharing becomes a viable multi-modal solution. The infrastructure cost of the system, compared to subways or light rail systems, is extremely low.
  • NAS Integration. Uber’s passenger aircrafts are very much like helicopters and could fly today under current rules and regulations. The crafts will be piloted for many years, until they’ve logged sufficient miles to prove a safety case and acceptance. The fundamental block to being able fly today is managing several hundred aircrafts at the same time. To do that, Uber is partnering with NASA to develop network management and air space management solution so that we can operate these vehicles at scale, over major cities and near airports.
  • Demonstration Cities. In 2020, Uber will kick off a 2-year test of the air passenger drones in Dallas. Dallas was selected because it the FAA and NASA has a joint facility at the Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport, which has been pioneering air space solutions for many years. The objective is to demonstrate the vehicles in an urban area to prove out how quiet and just how safe they are. Mark believes that to catch on as a mainstream transportation solution, the vehicles must be community friendly.  The demonstration period will also provide the confidence to manufacturers to invest in the certification of the vehicles so that by 2023, they’re ready for commercial service. Los Angeles is another test city and Uber is currently seeking an international test city.
  • Uber Elevate. In May, Uber held its second Uber Elevate summit to discuss and further introduce its urban air mobility plans. This year’s Elevate Summit brought together 750+ of the world’s foremost on-demand aviation leaders from across industry, government, and academia.
  • Closing. Mark closes on a very optimistic note commenting on how fast things are moving in the air mobility arena. He’s also excited to know that Uber is working on a solution that could really solve the mobility challenge facing so many urban areas around the world.

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