Urbane Urban Transportation

The sobering details of some air transportation theories presented from the likes of Uber — while exciting and intoxicating — require pragmatic review.

I am a pragmatist, not a curmudgeon. Although I am a seasoned citizen with more of my career as rotorcraft maintenance professional behind me than in front of me, I am a pragmatist. Thus the sobering details of some air transportation theories presented from the likes of Uber — while exciting and intoxicating — require pragmatic review.

Uber’s view is that on-demand aviation can “radically improve urban mobility, giving people back time lost in their daily commutes.” The company’s theory is to use the three-dimensional airspace to reduce transportation congestion on the ground with a system of small, battery-powered electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) aircraft. Those air taxis would dock at multi-pad “Vertiports,” or eVTOL hubs with multiple takeoff and landing pads as well as battery-charging infrastructure.

Uber says these hubs would provide rapid, reliable transportation between suburbs and cities and, ultimately, advancing to intra-city VTOL transit.

By the year 2023, Uber aims to get its taxis certified for Part 135 passenger category transport service moving more than 4,000 passengers per hour per Vertiport by Uber eVTOL aircraft, according to the company. This Skyport, the designs of which were pitched by various architecture and engineering firms, has a proposed infrastructure to enable the passenger movement goal.

If enthusiasm were the only ingredient needed to move the air taxi system from mission statement to goal, the eVTOL taxi would be a reality by 2023.

Uber leads an enthusiastic pack of would-be air taxi service and aircraft providers that includes Bell, Airbus, Embraer and the U.S. Army Research, Development & Engineering Command. Uber and the Army have signed a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) for developing a stacked rotor system. Yet another company, E-One Moli Energy, is developing a battery cell for the taxi.

Couple these industry heavyweights with civic support from the mayors of Dallas and Los Angles, and you can be assured this veritable list of transportation and civic celebrity are major and motivated financial stakeholders. However, deep down they all recognize the financial and operational success of the air taxi will require serious regulatory and logistical planning, a copious and sustained revenue stream and public acceptance of the overall concept.

Wholehearted public acceptance necessitates a non-rhetorical resolution to safety, aircraft noise and affordability for an air taxi, succeeded by resolving the not-in-my-back-yard public resistance to Vertiports.

And who pays for the Vertiports? Obtaining public acceptance is paramount to the success of the air taxi service. Uber’s white paper alludes to several studies as to why the company believes the public wants it; however, the report does not include public concurrence on the need.

Before the public will abandon cars and embrace this avant-garde mode of transportation, it would need convincing that it’s safe and affordable.

Right now, although there are more than a dozen companies with as many different design approaches passionately working to make eVTOLs a reality, there is nothing beyond concept designs.

Then come the regulatory issues. The FAA and its European counterpart are still grappling with the incursion of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in controlled airspace. They now must shoulder the burden of cooperating with the OEMs on certification for a new type aircraft. That would require preparing and publishing operational regulations for thousands of Uber’s planned eVTOLs.

Uber then would have to determine a safe air traffic protocol for the eVTOL, prepare and publish pilot and crew training instructions and regulations, and work with aircraft manufacturers to establish maintenance procedures for the new technologies that make up, fly and power the eVTOL.

Then the companies would have to collaborate with aviation educators to attract and train a new generation of pilots and maintenance technicians.

Even though there will be substantial pressure from the Uber lobby, I don’t foresee the regulatory agencies moving any faster than normal to make those substantial regulatory changes. After all, these are the same folks who haven’t changed the written airframe and powerplant exam since 1962.

Uber, mixed with its alignment of potential supporters, presents an intoxicating concept. But there are significant and sobering issues to be resolved that individually can be showstoppers, and resolution collectively will be daunting and expensive. RWI

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