The future of electric vertical take-off and landing and its role in public transportation is edging ever closer as OEMs and businesses join forces to make this once sci-fi dream a reality.
For a concept to become a product, there has to be demand and affordability – enter Uber, the taxi app company, which is using its meteoric rise in ground transportation to seriously launch sky taxis.
One of the drives behind Uber’s accessibility to urban transportation lies with the rise in traffic, congestion and modern stresses related to city commuting.
Looking at the urban landscape and densely populated cities around the world, the city of São Paulo, Brazil, has one of the largest fleets of helicopters within a city. Not surprisingly, the country has the most heliports in the region with around 13 [at last count by the CIA’s world fact book 2013].
UberCopter is looking to capitalise on the number of helicopters within the city by using them as a mode of transportation across the South American metropolis.
In Silicon Valley, Airbus Group is gearing up for the first prototype flight of its A^3, part of Project Vahana, which is a self-piloted aircraft (Vahana is Sanskrit for ‘that which carries, pulls’).
In addition, the OEM’s CityAirbus project is a piloted multi-propeller aircraft that the company hopes will eventually see the aircraft become fully autonomous once legislation is passed.
Returning to Uber, the company is working in collaboration with rotary OEM Bell Helicopter on an ambitious flying taxi programme which it hopes to see test flights for in 2020.
Three years from now Uber is hopeful that by utilising Bell’s innovation knowledge and expertise it will have a VTOL aircraft to operate as a taxi service.
Bell Helicopter remains tighter lipped about the timelines at this stage. In a non-committal fashion, Scott Drennan, director of engineering innovation at Bell Helicopter, told me more about the deadlines and the project.
‘We are looking carefully at what we can and can’t do. Uber has put out some pretty aggressive timelines. Bell is looking at this from a safety perspective to ensure the aircraft can perform the missions,’ Drennan said.
At this stage, Bell Helicopter’s innovation team, which recently showcased the concept FCX-001, is looking at technologies that will adhere to Uber’s brief for urban transportation.
Primarily, the team’s initial propulsion technology direction is anticipated to be centred around hybrid electric although this could evolve to fully electric.
Cities being looked at for an initial service are Dallas and Dubai. The former is no surprise being the home of Bell Helicopter.
‘We are both open to all urban environments… open to Dallas and Dubai… Dallas is our home turf, we know we have supportive mayors and we know we have lots of aerospace in the area.
‘We have communities that want to be leaders in technology and transportation. So, that’s a great choice for us as well,’ Drennan commented.
With a community that is so open to new aircraft technologies buzzing overhead, this surely provides a blank cheque for the OEM to experiment.
‘Uber is honest about the challenges. We agree with their list – autonomy and air traffic control certification, propulsion – these are all going to be unique challenges that of course Bell loves to face and matches our historical legacy of taking on transformative lift,’ Drennan commented.
He explained that in the development of the aircraft, low emissions are being considered while noise is a key parameter in its design.
Along the supply chain, Lord Corporation, a manufacturer and developer of vibration, noise and motion control parts on helicopters and fixed-wing, interestingly rose the point about external noise in relation to the next-generation of rotorcraft and how this affects certain communities around the world.
‘With external noise, there is a sensitivity to that but I think we are seeing more of that in Europe than the US. Although there are signs that it is becoming an issue in the US. I believe tours were restricted in New York city – with issues also around the Grand Canyon,’ Scott Miller, marketing manager at Lord Corporation commented to me.
This point was further emphasised by a case in Denham, UK, where complaints were made about training helicopters in proximity to residential dwellings.
The overarching aim of all these projects is for accessible transportation in large urban environments and while noise regulations is not a forefront concern at this stage, with pedestrians already bombarded by road noise, the widespread appearance of VTOL commuters will likely become an issue.