NASA ready to back Uber in plans to manage flying taxis

NASA and Uber will be working together to ensure that the ride-sharing company’s plans to deploy a fleet of flying taxis by 2020 gets off the ground, through the advancements of NASA’s Urban Air Mobility (UAM) program.

Uber announced the new cooperation with the space agency to develop the necessary Air Traffic Management (ATM) infrastructure during the Web Summit in Lisbon on Wednesday.

The UAM program is not expressly designed for Uber taxi service, but is rather the evolution of a more ambitious plan by the space agency to work with the FAA and research institutions to develop a method to manage the lower airspace in a near-term future where Amazon drones deliver packages, news services, emergency response teams, film crews and hobbyists all use drones for various purposes at the same time that vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft services become popular.

The challenge is to ensure that there is some method to keep all of those low-flying vehicles on course and at a safe distance with little human intervention, but NASA is confident that it can be done.

As Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics explains in the space agency’s special report on its UAM strategic implementation plan:

“NASA has the knowledge and the expertise to help make urban air mobility happen. We plan to conduct the research and development, and test the concepts and technologies that establish feasibility and help set the requirements.

“Those requirements then serve to make using autonomous vehicles, electric propulsion, and high density airspace operations in the urban environment safe, efficient and economically viable.”

“With UAM’s potential to make such a huge difference in all of our lives in the very near future, we want to be sure we’re investing in the best areas of research that will help industry to make this happen.”

The program is already underway and has been for six years, begun with the launch of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System Project; which began in 2011 to address the safe management of hundreds of larger UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems; more commonly referred to as drones) in the airspace.

After what NASA describes as “the explosive growth” of smaller drones, the agency launched a related UAS Traffic Management (UTM) project in 2015, which identifies technologies and procedures which would keep small drones safe as the lower airspace gets more crowded.

Research began in rural areas, but will ultimately extend to urban centers, which is critical to the launch of Uber’s planned services.

As Parimal Kopardekar, senior technologist for air transport systems at NASA’s Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley explains:

“Much of the work being done in these two projects will be directly applicable to the UAM research we anticipate we will be doing. And we will continue to deploy the same partnership approach from UTM that’s worked so well.”

There are a number of hurdles to overcome, including determining a method for safety certification of autonomous vehicle systems, studying noise impact, ensuring cyber security protections as well as UAM and a number of other technical and regulatory challenges.

Rich Wahls, NASA’s strategic technical advisor in the Advanced Air Vehicles Program for ARMD believes NASA, working in collaboration with the FAA and industry, can overcome these.

“We believe our job is to create opportunities for the UAM community to work together toward the common goal of safe, efficient and quiet operations.

“We have a unique role to play in leading collaborative efforts that leverage the knowledge, technologies and visions of everyone coming to the table.”

Uber’s 2020 target for first flights in Dallas, Dubai and Los Angeles, with intra-city service launching by 2023, is perhaps overly ambitious—especially considering the status of VTOL development programs underway.

But the company is committed to the project.

Uber has considered the full technology and infrastructure implications, and published these in a detailed white paper last October.

Reuters reports that Uber is working with Aurora Flight Sciences to develop software to manage its future flying taxi fleet and is working with Embraer, Mooney, Bell Helicopter and Pipistrel Aircraft to develop new electric-powered VTOL aircraft which would be used for the service.

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