VIDEO: Is Uber High?

How personal helicopters are the key focus to Uber’s “Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation.”

Well, you’ve got to hand it to the people at Uber; they are nothing if not ambitious.

The fast-growing ridesharing service has released in October a 98-page white paper called “Fast Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation.” That’s right, on-demand urban air transportation. Remember George Jetson? Uber has a plan that will see personalized drone-like vertical takeoff and landing transportation pods using rooftop helipads to revolutionize urban transportation.

Now, from an engineering perspective, we’ve been here before, and often. The notion of a personal helicopter in every driveway dates to the late 1940s, soon after the helicopter was perfected. The concept of flying cars has been around for over 70 years as well, and the 1950s and 60s were filled with the promise of rocket belts and jet packs, until even James Bond used one famously in Goldfinger. That was in 1964, and there are reasons why in the intervening decades these technologies have never been successfully developed.

Those reasons are pure engineering.

As the Uber paper states, general aviation takeoff and landing(TOL) solutions such as helicopters are at least 20 times more expensive than automobiles, a direct result of the incredible power of mass production and large economies of scale in vehicle manufacturing.

Could personal helicopters be mass-produced as cheaply? The answer is yes, assuming you could manufacture 10 to 15 million of them annually. Naturally, you couldn’t license, train or regulate that many pilots in crowded urban airspace, which is where Uber comes in.

As a logical extension of their self driving car experiment currently underway in Pittsburgh, the theory is that self-flying VTOL Uber pods could make that 70-year-old dream of rapid, efficient point-to-point transportation in cities a reality. It’s just all that damned engineering that stands in the way.

No new credible power plant has been developed since the mid-1940s that could power the kind of vertical takeoff pod that Uber needs to make their dream a reality. Similarly, no control system or autopilot currently exists that could autonomously fly such a vehicle through a cloud of similar pods over a dense urban environment. The level of redundancy required to produce safe vehicles for affordable costs makes this idea a non-starter with current technology.

And that’s the point made by Uber’s paper. They claim that with proper investment in advanced lightweight fast-charging batteries and electric propulsion, the power-to-weight ratio problem can be beaten. And from a safety redundancy standpoint, they also assert that the system can be built to work reliably with a similar technology to that which has been tested with ground vehicles now.

So, could such a system ever get regulatory approval? The legal issues are voluminous, including potential liability issues the first time an Uber pod crashes into Times Square on a summer Saturday night. Here’s a simple checklist for making the 1962-era Jetsons into today’s reality:

  1. Advanced, lightweight materials that will dramatically reduce airframe weight, which are mass producible with similar costs to the stamped and welded sheet steel used in automotive production.
  2. A new power source, probably electric combined with fast charging yet lightweight and low-cost batteries, super capacitors or fuel cells, that can be mass-produced at a cost on par with current electric and internal combustion engine drives.
  3. A redundant (likely triple-redundant) sensor and actuator suite combined with software that would safely auto-land a damaged or defective pod without injury to its occupants or bystanders.
  4. A new form of FAA regulation that would change what is currently highly controlled airspace into something more like the public road network, which addresses security issues while still allowing non-pilots free access to the airspace.
  5. Some form of tort law reform that would limit liability when the inevitable accident occurs, like the limited liability exposure that airlines negotiated in an international treaty drawn up in 1999.

Of course, the elephant in the room is cost. The staggering costs to develop the enabling technologies could never be borne by one or even a few of the traditional manufacturing corporations such as Boeing, Airbus, Toyota or General Motors. Like many spaceflight endeavors, it’s likely that some form of Manhattan Project or Apollo-like, taxpayer-funded national effort will be required.

Would US taxpayers be willing to fund a project as big as personal air transportation? Short of a charismatic leader like John F. Kennedy, a bitter ideological competitor like the Soviet Union, and a tight but achievable deadline like a single decade, I think the answer is “no.”

So, is it impossible? Today, yes.

But I’m one of the people who said that Uber would never be successful in the first place, so who knows? Uber, I’m not betting on you pulling this off, but if you can do this in my lifetime, I’ll kiss the tail boom of the first Air Uber in public service.

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.