Brian Garrett-Glaser
By Brian Garrett-Glaser

As the managing editor of eVTOL.com, Brian covers the ecosystem emerging around eVTOLs and urban air mobility. Follow him on twitter @bgarrettglaser.

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Moonware to develop autonomous ground handling services for Uber Elevate’s skyports — and maybe commercial aviation, too

Uber Elevate has added Moonware, a robotics and software company developing autonomous, electric ground handling vehicles, to its roster of solutions that will help enable high throughput air taxi services at its skyports.

Moonware Uber
Moonware is developing autonomous, electric ground handling vehicles and an associated software stack for use at Uber skyports. Moonware Image

Moonware, founded by Javier Vidal and Saunon Malekshahi, is a San Francisco, California-based startup seeking to bring ground handling services into the future for all sectors of aviation — not just urban air mobility. Combining fully autonomous vehicles with a cloud management software stack, Moonware believes it can save the aviation industry up to $6 billion annually in net operating costs once its solution is fully deployed.

Originally a project undertaken with Uber Elevate, Moonware’s solution provides numerous benefits for the emerging air taxi ecosystem. With eVTOLs greatly constrained by battery density and optimized for weight, ground-based towing services are essential.

“Besides the weight reduction of not needing motorized landing gear in the front wheels, we also provide a lot of other savings to manufacturers. By limiting the engine use for aircraft use on the ground, we reduce aircraft energy use and even the noise footprint for skyports,” Vidal told eVTOL.com.

Moonware’s vehicles feature a patented mechanism that leverages the weight of the aircraft’s front nose gear to generate the torque necessary for tugging operations, according to the startup, which allows the vehicles to accommodate different landing gear configurations and minimizes structural fatigue.

This also means that vehicles provided as a solution for general aviation, business aviation and urban air mobility will be more or less interchangeable, Vidal said, and that is mostly true for the software system as well. With its vehicles already designed and his team currently working on the fleet management system, Moonware intends to first target the GA market in 2023 before moving on to deployment at skyports as they become operational shortly after.

“How many vehicles we deploy obviously depends on the size of the skyport,” Vidal said. “We’re basically deploying one vehicle per parking spot in a skyport, plus one or two additional ones as backup. Our vehicles are electric as well and are going to be operating nonstop, so they’ll need to recharge. Our cloud management software will be able to calculate and handle deployment through the day.”

For Moonware, however, urban air mobility and GA are a test-bed for a much larger potential market. By 2026 or 2027, Vidal hopes to be operational at major commercial airports with up to 100 larger vehicles per airport that are capable of tugging commercial jets. With this service, the founders believe they can save airlines billions not only on direct operating costs, such as labor, but also by reducing delays and ground handling-related accidents through “perfect repeatability.”

The path to functional, safe autonomous driving and flying is currently a subject of much discussion, with Alphabet’s self-driving unit, Waymo, recently launching a limited self-driving taxi service and Tesla releasing its “full self-driving beta test” to the public. To date, the timeline on which experts have predicted self-guided mobility will reach maturity has slipped to the right repeatedly.

Moonware Uber sketch
According to Uber Elevate’s website: “Autonomous ground vehicles maximize throughput by optimizing highly repeated operations at skyports and eliminating potential bottlenecks on the flight deck.” Moonware/Uber Image

But Moonware’s founders tell eVTOL.com their vehicles are a perfect example of where today’s autonomous technology shines: highly-constrained, predictable, mapped environments like warehouses . . . and airfields.

“Deploying autonomous solutions in skyports and airports is very easy and straightforward . . . you’re operating in a constrained environment with very few edge cases … putting an autonomous solution in these type of environments is perfectly feasible with today’s technology,” Vidal said.

Moonware’s plans to initially manufacture its vehicles at the company’s warehouse in San Francisco using commercially-available parts, with intentions to later establish supplier relationships and focus in-house on developing sensors and LIDAR technology.

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