Uber’s future mobility plans include a lot of flying

You might have heard the news that Uber has started a new service in New York under the Uber Copter nameplate. Essentially, the company will offer helicopter rides for those looking to travel from lower Manhattan to J.F.K. airport. The flight time is estimated at around eight minutes and will cost between $200 and $225 per person, according to The New York Times. So, why are we telling you this? Because three years ago, Uber highlighted plans that included a separate air-hauling division called Uber Elevate, which would use some sort of flying cars to take people from A to B. Naturally, everybody was buzzing but the project went a little silent over the past years. Uber Copter, however, might be the first sign that Elevate might still be happening. Here’s everything there is to know about Uber Elevate.

What is Uber Elevate?

The obvious question here, so let’s begin with that. Ask Uber and you’ll probably get this answer:

"Uber Air is our most ambitious vision for that future. Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently, Uber Air would take to the sky to alleviate congestion on the ground and enable riders to tap a button for a shared flight."

Now, you might have noticed that the term used here is Uber Air. To avoid confusions, you should know that Uber Air is part of the Uber Elevate project and relates to what measures and hardware solutions Uber is currently looking at to create a network of aircraft and Skyports that would cover the globe’s largest cities - which are usually the most congested urban settings. We’ll touch on the topic of what sort of aircraft and Skyports Uber will use later on.

Uber Elevate - How it works?

Uber Elevate: Everything You Need To Know
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Uber Elevate will work just like the regular Uber. The sole exception is that instead of cars, passengers will get on board of specially-designed aircraft which would then take them from point A to point B. Like it’s the case with Uber Copter, the company says it will also provide on-land connections to and from the departure/destination points.

Based on these requirements, Uber has been developing its own eVTOL versions which it calls CRMs, or Common Reference Models. Uber’s eVTOL efforts are led by NASA engineer Mark Moore, who has developed the so-called DEP, or Distributed Electric Propulsion. We know, it sounds fancy, but the simplest way to think of it is to imagine a multitude of smaller motors each powering its own propeller instead of two big engines - which is pretty much the standard nowadays (with some exceptions, of course) in both civilian and military aircraft.

Uber Elevate: Everything You Need To Know
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According to what Uber thinks such an aircraft would need in order to haul people safely and efficiently, the eVTOLs can be adapted in terms of design and manufacturing with what Uber’s partners currently offer in terms of flying technology.

Uber Air Vehicle (eVTOL) Requirements

Noise 15 dB quieter than today’s light helicopters (70 dB SEL @ 700 feet)
Rapid-charging capability 600 kW
Charge time 7 minutes during 3-hour sprint windows
Room 1 pilot and 3 to 4 passengers
Cargo payload 980 pounds, including the people and luggage
Ground taxi 300 feet at 5 feet/second
Vehicle footprint 50 feet
Vehicle height 20 feet
Range 60 miles
Cruise speed 150 mph

Uber Elevate - eVTOLs

Last year, Uber took to its second Elevate Summit to share a handful of design specs regarding its future eVTOLs - remember the CRMs we mentioned earlier? Oh, and just in case you didn’t get the memo, eVTOL comes from Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing.

Now, each eCRM (where "e" stands for "electric") is fitted with four sets of electrically powered propellers dedicated to take off and landing. Moreover, each set packs two more rotors that spin in the same direction - these are used to generate lift. Uber says that by operating multiple rotors, single points of failure are eliminated, so these eCRMs are supposed to be safer than your run-of-the-mill helicopter. They’re also quieter, says the company, since there isn’t the need anymore for a tail rotor and the combustion engine of a helicopter.

Uber Elevate: Everything You Need To Know
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Perhaps you’re wondering how will these things travel forward once they’re up in the air. That’s simple: a propeller fitted on the tail will provided the needed thrust. At first, each eVTOL will have a designated pilot, but Uber wants to eventually develop a fleet of fully-autonomous eVTOLs. Space is on the crammed side, but there’s still enough room for 4 passengers and a personal bag/backpack per rider.

eCRM Fast Facts

Cruising speed 150-200 mph
Cruising altitude 1,000-2,000 feet above ground
Battery life 60 miles on a single charge
Propulsion 100% electric
Recharging time around 5 minutes during peak hours
Room 4 passengers plus the pilot

Since we mentioned cabin space for Uber’s future eVTOLs, another thing must be pointed out: the company is joining forces with Safran as far as the interior arrangement of its aircraft is concerned. In fact, it was only last month when the two brands unveiled a full-scale cabin mockup that could tick all the boxes of an on-demand urban air mobility vehicle.

Uber Elevate: Everything You Need To Know
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Here’s Scott Savian, EVP of the Design and Innovation Studio at Safran explaining the entire process:

"Through the process with Uber, we had six full-scale mockups, with multiple iterations in each one, looking at the seats, liners, and window positioning. We don't want any excess weight or cost, but the mission also requires safety, a comfortable user experience, and a seamlessness of all the user interactions. So while the cabin may be minimal in some ways, it's absolutely purpose built to the mission."

Although further details remain unspecified, we can clearly see that the cabin takes inspiration from small business jets. Safran also says that it can be adapted "to different OEM vehicle designs" so if this goes ahead, we’re looking at the same arrangement that would be used in different types of eVTOLs. Which brings us to another question: what eVTOLs will Uber use? To answer it, we’ll look at two of the most promising designs - Airbus’ CityAirbus and Joby Aviation’s S2.

Uber Elevate: Everything You Need To Know
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Airbus CityAirbus

The CityAirbus is exactly what the name says it is: an eVTOL or flying taxi that can carry four people across crowded cities without the need of a pilot sitting in the cockpit, since the aircraft is remotely controlled. At the time of writing, CityAirbus had more than 100 test flights under its belt since it first took off in May 2019.

Airbus CityAirbus Tech Specs

Autonomy 15 minutes
Propulsion 8 fixed pitch propellers attached to 8 electric motors
Electric motor power 100 kW each
Capacity Four passengers
Safety single-failure tolerant architecture
Speed 120 km/h (75 mph)
Battery capacity 110 kWh
Take off weight 2.2 tons

Joby Aviation S4

Joby Aviation’s S4 is the successor if the company’s S2 eVTOL, the main difference being that the S4 can host four passengers while the S2 only had room for two - hence the numbers in their names. The S4 uses six vector thrust propellers that are also foldable and tilting.

Moreover, Joby Aviation claims that the S4 is 100 times more quieter than the regular helicopter and can provide a cruise speed of 200 mph and a maximum range of 150 miles. From where we’re standing, this looks like the most suitable candidate for Uber’s Elevate fleet, mostly because Joby has managed to solve the range and speed issues - the same can’t be said about the Airbus A3 CityAirbus.

Joby Aviation S4 Tech Specs

Capacity 4 passengers
Propulsion 6 propellers
Range 150 miles (246.4 km)
Wingspan 35 ft (10.7 m)
Length 24 ft (7.3 m)
Weight 4,000 pounds (1,815 kg)
Max speed 140 mph (225.3 km)

Uber Elevate - Skyports

With the eVTOL equation solved (theoretically), Uber wants to create a network of landing and take off areas called Skyports. In this regard, the company has been contacting leading architecture firms such as Gannett Fleming, BOKA Powell, Humphreys & Partners Architects, Pickard Chilton, Arup, Corgan, and The Beck Group.

They all came up with different designs, but each of them had to abide by Uber’s demands. In more details, each Skyport must be able to "support Uber Air landing and take off at a busy, high-volume location such as a stadium or concert hall." Moreover, they are required to allow the transport of 4,000 people per hour within a 3-acre footprint as well as meet environmental requirements and provide recharging utilities for the eVTOLs. Which is very demanding if you ask us, and it would also imply that Uber will actually have to deploy armies of eVTOLs to keep up with such a pace. Just think about it: 4,000 people per hour, at a rate of 4 people per eVTOL, that’s 1,000 eVTOLs buzzing around. And that’s for just one Skyport.

At this point, it’s pretty clear that Uber hasn’t set an easy task when it drew the blueprint for Elevate. However, history tells us that it’s the craziest ideas that revolutionize a field of activity. In this case, only time will tell whether Uber succeeds in this endeavour.

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