Advancements in two realms of technology have brought flying cars — a concept that has captured the public’s imagination for years — closer to reality, according to a NASA researcher.
Uber plans to test a flying car service in Dallas by 2020. From there, key areas throughout the globe could see systems in place by 2025 or 2030, and in 20 years flying cars could be integrated into daily life throughout the world, said Ken Goodrich, senior research engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Norfolk, Va. His experience lies in autonomous controls, and he has worked at NASA on projects aimed at bringing forth high-speed, on-demand mobility.
“It’s one of the holy grails of aviation,” said Goodrich, referring to the expanded use of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircrafts. “It’s something we’re excited to participate in at NASA. Our role is in answering some of the difficult questions.”
“We want to make sure it’s very safe, the [aircrafts] are very quiet, so they can be integrated within the communities, and that it is efficient, so we can afford to use it,” Goodrich said.
Many of the eVTOL craft models are battery-operated.
In terms of a timeline that projects at least some individuals will be riding eVTOL aircrafts in three years, he said, “Everyone has to be a little skeptical, because we’ve heard about this idea for decades.”
However, the technological advancements are lining up in the realms of intelligent autonomous systems and distributed electric propulsion, Goodrich said. He described a “sea change in the last three or four years” in regard to driverless and highly automated systems, as there is now a higher comfort level with the technology in cars and drones. The way an eVTOL flies might be considered closest to a helicopter, which has a worse safety record than airplanes. Helicopters have “concentrated mechanical complexity,” where “failure of a single item or a single link” can cause an accident, Goodrich said.
Designs of eVTOLs, including Dubai’s drone taxi service — being tested now — use distributed power. In the case of the Dubai’s self-piloting electric Volocopters, it is 18 independent rotors.
Also along the safety vein are the regulatory issues tied to eVTOLS in the U.S. Conventionally manned, piloted helicopters answer to Air Traffic Control, and Uber leadership has said its intention is to operate under the same guidelines. Goodrich said Uber might find a way use a digitized, scalable system that would not put more work on ATC.
“Air space has to evolve just as quickly as the aircraft,” he said.
NASA is working in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration in both realms.
RESEARCH IN ARKANSAS
Jim Rankin, vice provost for research and innovation at the University of Arkansas and electrical engineering faculty member, has researched barriers in the area of flying cars and has worked on projects with the FAA and NASA over the years. There are many questions surrounding the implementation of eVTOLS in the U.S., Rankin said.
“What are the traffic laws? Can you get a speeding ticket in a flying car?”
He said Uber plans to start its program with licensed pilots, but in the future the plan is for anyone who takes driving lessons to be able to operate the aircrafts.
“Can you only fly over certain areas? Can you only fly over streets? If you cut across, do you have to be higher than the buildings, or can you use urban canyons in between tall buildings?” Rankin said.
Drones, for example, are subject to Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management and can only be flown below 400 feet.
Rankin said his background is in aviation electronics.
“We’re worried about how you communicate between the aircraft and Air Traffic Control, how you do navigation, surveillance,” he said. Instead of traditional radar, there might be new electronic systems used. “How do you stay connected? … It’ll be a challenge, but I also think it’s very interesting.”
‘HAVE THE JETSONS ARRIVED?’
In September, he participated in a panel called “Flying Cars: Have the Jetsons Arrived?” at the Digital Avionics Systems Conference in St. Petersburg, Fla., along with representatives from Lockheed Martin and Uber. He said Uber’s idea is for individuals to use Uber’s cars to go from their houses to sky portals where they would take public transport in an eVTOL and then land and take an Uber car to the destination.
Rankin said eVTOL might ultimately help with traffic congestion, but “the roads are going to be with us a long time, and so are some version of cars and trucks.” At the same time, he recognizes the surreal feeling the idea of flying cars might evoke.
“It’s funny how often technology has come from things we saw on sci-fi movies and TV,” he said.
Uber and NASA are just two entities exploring the concept. Google co-founder Larry Page has invested $100 million in two companies — Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk — pursuing VTOL projects, according to Bloomberg.
In an emailed statement to Talk Business & Politics, Uber Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden said, “What started as a simple question ‘Why can’t I push a button and get a ride?’ has turned, for Uber, into a passionate pursuit of the pinnacle of urban mobility — the reduction of congestion and pollution from transportation, giving people their time back, freeing up real estate dedicated to parking and providing access to mobility in all corners of a city. Urban aviation is a natural next step for Uber in this pursuit, which is why we are working to make push a button, get a flight a reality.”
Uber is now seeking certification from the FAA for Uber Elevate, though the business did not comment on where it is in the process.
The company is addressing another issue, a lack of battery power for long-range commutes, through a partnership with Chargepoint that designs quick-charging batteries, Matthew Wing, Uber corporate communications lead, said in an email. The idea is that the eVTOLs can re-charge at vertiport stations quickly in between trips, and Uber is now working with Chargepoint to design, develop and manufacture these solutions for utilization at Uber Elevate Vertiports by 2020. The partnership was announced at the 2017 Elevate Summit in Dallas.
Uber’s long-term goal is to operate a worldwide network of eVTOL vehicles. The company put out a white paper titled “Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation” in October 2016.
“As we outline in the white paper, safety is a key priority for making an uberAIR network successful. VTOL designs will also be markedly safer than today’s helicopters because VTOLs will not need to be dependent on any single part to stay airborne and will ultimately use autonomous technology to significantly reduce operator error,” Wing said.