How Uber's Dream of Self-flying Drone Taxis Becomes Reality


Chinese company Ehang introduced its Ehang 184 passenger drone at the 2016 CES convention. Ehang
Chinese company Ehang introduced its Ehang 184 passenger drone at the 2016 CES convention. Ehang

At a recent conference, Uber chief product officer Jeff Holden generated a real buzz when he revealed that the ride-providing service is looking into a new way of transporting its customers — flying cars that would have the ability to hover and land or take off vertically thanks to helicopter-like rotors.

Holden told Recode.net that such vertical take off and landing (VTOL) vehicles would initially be piloted by humans, but that in time — like the driverless cars that the company is testing in the Pittsburgh market — they might zoom around autonomously. Uber's press department didn't respond to requests from HowStuffWorks for more information.

You've seen this vision before, actually — in the 1982 sci-fi movie "Blade Runner," for instance, where the skies of a dystopian future Los Angeles hum with flying cars capable of landing in and taking off from the teeming streets:

But while flying cars might seem like a science fiction-fantasy, they're anything but. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently gave flying car maker Terrafugia an exemption from some regulations so that its Transition flying vehicle could be certified as a light sport aircraft. Major European aircraft maker Airbus has revealed plans to develop the CityAirbus vehicle, an aerial taxi with VTOL capabilities that eventually would operate autonomously. NASA is working to develop advanced VTOL technology that's quieter and more energy efficient than today's helicopters or small aircraft, and the company Ehang introduced its Ehang 184, an autonomous flying-taxi VTOL drone, at this year's Consumer Electronics Show:

The FAA actually is working with several aircraft manufacturers who are trying to develop human-piloted flying cars — and eventually hope to convert them to robotic control.

"Several areas still need further research and development," the agency press office says via email, "particularly the operational aspects of making sure the automation that will 'fly' the autonomous aircraft is safe, and how the automation will interact with the air traffic control system. We believe automation technology already being prototyped in low risk UAS missions, when fully mature, could have a positive impact on general aviation safety."

The safety issue is a big one, of course. People worry about driverless cars being allowed on the crowded streets of cities, where their crash-avoidance technology might not be enough to avoid meandering jaywalkers and careless human drivers' mistakes. Robotic flying cars would face even more daunting risks. They'd not only have to dodge each other, but also avoid crashing into tall buildings. And with sidewalks full of pedestrians and schools and playgrounds under them, there's little margin for malfunction.

Here's How It Can Happen

But one visionary who's worked to reimagine urban spaces thinks those problems could be solved, particularly if cities are willing to adapt to accommodate to autonomous flying vehicles — and that an aerial Uber actually would both make cities more livable and benefit them economically.

Marcus Martinez, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated architect and urban planner, is co-founder of the Houston-based design consultancy Alloybuild. The firm received attention in 2013 for its  demonstration project Shuffle City, which showed how Houston might adapt to driverless vehicles and repurpose its parking lots for development.

"We're going to learn a ton from autonomous vehicles," says Martinez. "A lot of that might help to make autonomous flight more possible."

Our colleagues from Fw:Thinking looked at the future of flying cars in this recent video: 

Flying vehicles wouldn't necessarily have to zoom across a city to be useful, Martinez says. They might be particularly useful in suburbs on the edge of cities, where aerial ride-sharing could enable commuters to soar over traffic jams and get to otherwise-distant transit stations without needing a place to park. At the other end of the trip, they might lift passengers up over crowded city streets and transport them a few blocks, cutting commuting time.

"The 'first mile/last mile' problem is a big one in urban transit systems," he says. "This might help."

But Martinez thinks robotic flying cars also could maneuver safely around cities, especially if restricted to using certain defined corridors — for example, wide streets with buildings that were six to eight stories tall, which would reduce the risk of colliding with a skyscraper. (The vehicles still could elevate at the end of their trip to land atop a tall building.) The flying vehicles would have instructions embedded in their robotic operating systems that would prevent them from wandering toward high-risk places where they're not supposed to be, such as the airspace over schools or playgrounds.

As with driverless cars, "it might be safer to rely on software, rather than you trying to remember where not to go," says Martinez. It would help even more if the robotic flying cars were linked to a wireless network that would coordinate their movements.

Reshaping a City

And flying robotic vehicles could do more than transport people, Martinez notes. He imagines them dropping off passengers and then picking up packages which they would deliver on the return route. "UPS won't have to drive a big truck around the streets anymore," he says.

Martinez also can imagine flying vehicles transporting passengers directly to the upper floors of buildings along their routes, rather than landing on the ground. That, he thinks, could change the urban landscape, because those floors could be converted to accommodate stores, restaurants, and other uses that are found at street level in cities today.

"Building owners could convert them to mixed-use," he says. "The city might end up being defined by aerial corridors" instead of main streets. "That property would become more valuable, because being on the corridor would make you more accessible." In time, architects might even design new buildings to take advantage of flying cars' benefits.



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