Concept art of the Uber Elevate or Uber Air service

Uber to work with Nasa on flying taxis project

Image credit: Uber

Uber is to partner with Nasa in order to develop software to manage airborne taxi routes, the ride-sharing app company has announced.

In October 2016, the company published a paper describing its ambitiuos plans to roll out a service of electric flying taxis: “Uber Air”. These vehicles would be quiet, entirely electric and capable of vertical take-off and landing, with elements of a helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

Uber stated that this approach could allow for reliable transportation between suburbs and cities and eventually within and around cities themselves. The drones could be hailed using a smartphone app, possibly the same Uber app currently in use.

“Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently, urban air transportation will use three-dimensional airspace to alleviate transportation congestion on the ground,” the authors of the paper wrote.

Already, the company has said that it will partner with a number of other companies on aspects of the project and will not design or manufacture the hardware itself.

Uber has now announced that it will partner with Nasa – its first partnership with a US government agency - to develop software for the unmanned flying vehicles. This software would manage the routes the vehicles would take around cities' airspaces, with consideration for existing air traffic. Developing this will undoubtedly prove a challenge.

The announcement of the Space Act Agreement with Nasa was made by Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer, at the Web Summit in Lisbon this week. Uber is aiming to begin trialling Uber Air by 2020 in Dallas, Texas, and Dubai, with Los Angeles following soon after.

The company hopes to have the service running by the 2028 Olympics, which will be hosted in Los Angeles.

“Uber Air will be performing far more flights on a daily basis than […] has ever been done before. Doing this safely and efficiently is going to require a foundational change in airspace management technologies,” said Holden.

“Combining Uber’s software engineering expertise with Nasa’s decades of airspace experience to tackle this is a crucial step forward for Uber Elevate.”

Professor David Dunn, a researcher at the University of Birmingham, told the BBC that Uber’s plans “might be more about marketing than a realistic product”, and compared the project with those of air carrier Pan Am, which declared an never-fulfilled intention to take tourists to the Moon in the 1960s.

In recent years, Uber has attracted controversy due to its antagonistic corporate culture, questionable treatment of employees and aggressive pushing of legal boundaries in the cities in which it operates, such as with the covert use of “greyball” software to evade law enforcement officers.

In September, Transport for London announced that Uber was not a fit and proper private hire operator license and that consequently its license would not be renewed.

“We are very much embracing the regulatory bodies and starting very early in discussions about this and getting everyone aligned with the vision,” Holden said.

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