Earlier today I was reading about Uber’s newest unveiling of their concept for a flying taxi and I love it. It’s an electrically powered, multi-rotor plane with two rotors for vertical flight and one for horizontal flight. This is reminiscent of the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, where the propellers transition from vertical flight to horizontal – the difference being Uber’s rotors are fixed. This has the potential to reduce some maintenance by reducing moving parts, but you’re also adding a lot of weight which reduces the carrying capacity.
One of the reasons I mention the V-22 is that one of the companies Uber is working with to develop this concept is Bell Helicopter, co-builder (along with Boeing) of the V-22.
Here are some points that I’d like to address; some questions, some comments, some concerns.
Don’t use fixed rotors
Uber is working with Bell Helicopter which successfully builds and sells V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft to the military. Use that expertise to build a tilt-rotor commercial plane. You’re reducing the number of components that are used and will need maintenance, you’re reducing the weight*, and development of the plane will be faster as some of the systems may be certifiable by similarity instead of a clean-sheet certification. If Uber truly isn’t planning on building this plane themselves, they should tap into the know-how of the companies that will be building it. The best part about the weight savings is that it could dramatically increase the range of the plane. This increases the amount of time the plane is available to make trips by decreasing the frequency of recharging.
Why have redundant vertical lift rotors?
The thought would be the vertical rotors will be to maintain lift during horizontal flight. But you’re building a plane, and unless the aerodynamic design of the plane is “brick with engines” then at some point in there you should be generating lift. This would make the the need for the vertical rotors, and the redundancy of said rotors by having them stacked, irrelevant. If you’re generating lift while not in vertical flight, you wouldn’t need the rotors used for vertical flight at all, so it wouldn’t matter if you lost them or they were redundant…I guess until you want to land? My thought is if you lose a vertical motor, you head for the nearest airport and land like a normal plane and Uber can send another UberAir taxi out to pick up the passengers.
Where are they getting their pilots?
Flying cars are an AMAZING idea. But what most people don’t think about, because why would they, is if you want to fly that car you’re going to need your pilot’s license. If you want to fly that car and get paid for your time? Make that a commercial pilot’s license. “What’s the difference?” Oh-ho-ho, but it is. A private pilot’s license takes a minimum of 40 hours of flying time, a commercial pilot’s license takes 250 hours, at a minimum. So not only do your UberAir (can I call it UbAir – pronounced oo-bear; similar to how you may think the French pronounce Uber) pilots need to have time to get certified, but also the money, because flying lessons are expensive. There’s already a shortage of commercial pilots out there, even the U.S. Air Force is facing a shortage.
Who is buying the planes?
If Uber doesn’t build them, will Uber buy them? I think they’ll have a hard time finding enough millenials with the cash to spare to not only pay for flying lessons, but also buying a plane and flying it around. I think the best bet is for Uber to operate like NetJets (or WheelsUp, but NetJets is owned by Berkshire Hathaway and it’s hard to bet against Warren Buffett). Basically NetJets allows the passenger to charter a flight on whichever plane they choose to wherever they choose – provided there’s a place to land. This works exactly like an air taxi service, and if you want to carpool (planepool?) then you can have a common pickup point for passengers nearby.
These are just come quick thoughts I had after reading about UbAir’s (I’m sticking with it) initial aircraft design.
*See my recent article to read about the extreme importance of weight in air travel.