9 November 2017

Uber and NASA are teaming up to fast-track a flying car dystopia

By Tom WhiteTom White

One day you're running a semi-legal ride-sharing network, the next you're trying to skip a few technological steps and bring the world the dystopian flying car future they stopped asking for in the '60s.

But really, we're not complaining. It sounds like the kind of dreamy BS that you roll your eyes at, but as if you've never been stuck in gridlock traffic and thought "Damnit, I'd pay any money for a private chopper right now."

Until now, Uber has sought to investigate flying cars with mixed results. Last year, they released a 99-page 'whitepaper' describing the feasability of an Uber service called 'Elevate'.

The short and the narrow of Elevate is that Blade-Runner style autonomous flying cars, capable of vertical take-off and landing (hence the name VTOL), will be able to be brought to the ride-share market in as little as 10 years. They'll be fully electric and will fly via tiltable rotors, imagine giant versions of today's RC drones, except they can get up to 322km/h and carry people. Apparently.

Yeah, okay that sounds pretty good. Yeah, okay that sounds pretty good.

Seems as bold and naive as the original Blade-Runner's prediction of a mass dystopian sci-fi society in 2014...

This could have easily been promoted as a bit of flimsy PR by Uber, selling the dream of a 15-minute traffic-free journey that would take an UberX an hour and a half. But it appears the company is taking things pretty seriously as it's now throwing big names like NASA into the mix.

If you're wondering what NASA could have to do with the decidedly not-spaceworthy VTOLs, it's air traffic control.

You see, drones and other low-altitude 'recreational aircraft' are now so prolific in the US that NASA has been working with the Federal Aviation Authority to deliver a 'Next Gen' air traffic control system. Lke, some monster radar array thing that stops everything from little Jimmy's small RC drone getting sucked into an Airbus' engines to stopping hundreds of hypothetical flying Ubers from colliding with each other.

In the (near) future you'll be able to land your Uber on a roof just like this one. In the (near) future you'll be able to land your Uber on a roof just like this one.

Uber's insistance that this aerial transportation is the future has evidently resulted in a deal with NASA. The kind of deal that secures Uber access to government-approved testing areas and NASA much needed data and input from a company that will actually use their next-gen air traffic control. NASA's testing of the system reaches 'Phase 3' next year - 'testing services over moderately populated areas'.

As if this endorsement by the renowned space agency wasn't enough, Uber has also been hiring ex-NASA veterans to help actually develop the aircraft it plans to take to market.

The future might be sooner than we think... 

Would you be keen to catch an Uber drone/VTOL-thing to work? Or will you be in the garage, singing your V8 to sleep and hoping the fun-police don't come and take it away?