Onboard pilots will be key to Uber Elevate meeting its ambitious timeline for launching eVTOL air taxi services by 2023, according to director of strategy Mark Moore.
Speaking at “The ((Quiet)) Electric VTOL Revolution” — a Vertical Flight Society (VFS) panel at HAI Heli-Expo 2020 sponsored by eVTOL.com — Moore said he expects to see piloted eVTOL air taxis long before small drones are delivering packages to individual customers.
“I’m convinced urban air mobility [UAM] with pilots will happen way before you’ll be getting anything delivered in your backyard,” Moore said when asked why Uber and its vehicle partners Joby Aviation and Hyundai Motor Group aren’t using package delivery as a stepping stone for public acceptance of electric air taxis.
“Sure, things are flying in remote areas, but autonomous flight is really hard,” he continued. “And having a pilot in the vehicle makes a huge difference in terms of regulatory barriers.”
Moore noted that Uber is already trialing the use of small drones for Uber Eats deliveries in the San Diego area as part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program.
“I can tell you, even though we’re actively doing it, it’s all about the critical path to enabling it [more widely],” he said. “And there is not even a critical path defined for how that UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] can be giving you your package in your backyard right now. Fully autonomous flight is really hard — it needs an evolution to happen.”
By contrast, Moore said, eVTOL air taxis with human pilots should be able to integrate fairly readily into the current operational environment. “There’s a well-defined critical path that doesn’t depend on beyond-line-of-sight autonomous flight that still has many sense-and-avoid and other issues that need to be worked out,” he explained.
While free-ranging drones may still be far in the future, VFS director of strategic development Jim Sherman pointed out that electric and hybrid-electric drones for cargo delivery are “being developed at roughly the same rate as urban air mobility, just not with the same fanfare.”
Companies like Bell, with its Autonomous Pod Transport (APT) series, and Elroy Air, with its Chaparral, are investing heavily in cargo drones with the aim of revolutionizing logistics in the same way that Uber seeks to transform urban mobility. And the use of drones for well-defined cargo and public safety applications will likely be pivotal in solving those “hard” problems of fully autonomous flight — with eventual implications for air taxis.
“Especially when we think about public safety use cases [for drones] . . . whether it’s delivering defibrillators, being able to use [them] for search-and-rescue, being able to help stop poaching in different areas where it’s really problematic, I think you’re going to see a lot of those applications come out in the interim,” said Pamela Cohn, vice president of global strategy and operations for Hyundai’s UAM Division.
“And I think they’re going to do a lot of good, not just in terms of technology and regulation, but also in terms of helping the public see the benefit of what this system could be,” she added.
While many industry observers share Uber’s vision for the future of UAM — piloted operations gradually transitioning to full autonomy over time — some air taxi developers are pursuing a different approach. For example, China’s EHang recently laid out a UAM vision based on autonomously piloted vehicles supervised by centralized command-and-control stations.
Notably, the Boeing-Kitty Hawk joint venture Wisk announced on Feb. 4 that it has a memorandum of understanding with the government of New Zealand to conduct a passenger transport trial using its self-flying Cora eVTOL air taxis. Wisk CEO Gary Gysin told eVTOL.com in early January that the company plans to go “direct to autonomy,” with no current plans for a piloted version of Cora.