Flying Taxis by 2020? Uber and NASA Sign Contract to Develop New Tech

Uber teams up with NASA to develop a flying taxi with ambitious plans to test by 2020.

Ramy Caspi
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Uber and NASA have recently signed an agreement to develop an drone-like flying taxi with plans to conduct its first test by 2020.

Speaking at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Jeff Holden, the Uber's chief product officer, announced the company’s intention to begin testing a four-passenger, 200mph UberAir flying taxi service, across Los Angeles in 2020. The two companies have signed a Space Act Agreement, an instrument that allows NASA to work with third parties that help it advance its mission.

Uber has claimed the service will be cheaper and faster than its existing taxi services, while helping to solve growing congestion problems in cities. Uber wants the vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft to be electric only and they expect a typical journey should take as little as four minutes.

In anticipation for LA’s 2028 Olympic Games, the company wants to have some form of its air service in operations, but experts remain sceptical as to whether autonomous flying taxis will ever become a reality. Holden said: “Doing this safely and efficiently is going to require a foundational change in airspace management technologies. Combining Uber’s software engineering expertise with NASA’s decades of airspace experience to tackle this is a crucial step forward.”

The Space Act Agreement allows NASA to contract out development of technologies and allows Uber participate in the development of unmanned traffic management systems. They will also develop low-altitude unmanned aerial systems (drones) that will be governed by it. “NASA is excited to be partnering with Uber and others in the community to identify the key challenges facing the UAM market, and explore necessary research, development and testing requirements to address those challenges,” said Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.

Uber has said that they have no plans to make the drones itself, rather they will be partnering with five manufacturers. The manufacturers include: Aurora Flight Sciences, Bell, Embraer, Karem and Pipistrel Aircraft and who are working on vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft.

NASA said its goals was to create a ride-share network that will allow residents to hail a small aircraft the same way Uber users can now use an app to call a car.

Uber has also signed a deal with Sanstone Properties, which has twenty sites across the greater LA area, for plans to build “skyports” that will serve as takeoff and drop-off points for flying taxis.The New York Times reports, Elaine Chao the US transportation secretary and Daniel Elwell of the Federal Aviation Authority, will hear Uber outline its plans to begin aerial tests in cities including LA and Dallas in 2020. The Guardian reports that, Eric Garcetti the mayor of LA, has said: “Los Angeles has always been a place where innovators come to build new ideas that can change how we live our lives. LA is the perfect testing ground for this new technology and I look forward to seeing it grow in the coming years.” Kimberly Harris-Ferrante and Michael Ramsey, analysts at Gartner, have said: “Flying autonomous vehicle technology is developing rapidly, but it’s likely to be more disruptive than transformational. High costs, safety concerns and regulatory burdens are likely to limit the use of this overhyped technology.”