Last week, wide-eyed technophiles, venture capitalists and hopeful market disruptors gathered in Portugal for a conference called the Web Summit. The venue may have been in Lisbon, but the news from the conference has a direct bearing on North Texas — Uber announced it was collaborating with NASA on a project to help create a flying taxi service. But a closer look at the deal makes it clear that the space agency's involvement does not mean the program is on the fast-track to reality.
Not everything rates an Apollo program, especially not flying taxis.
The ride-sharing company signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA to cooperate during the development of the system. The focus of the cooperation is fixated on "unmanned traffic management," a key component of the new system that Uber plans to test in the skies near D/FW International Airport.
As the Dallas Observer noted in April when Uber and public officials announced the flying taxi plan, Uber selected Dallas as a partner city to test these flying taxis, an effort that includes the construction of vertiports where the aircraft can take off and land. The company will locate its first U.S. test vertiport in Frisco, and Hillwood, the real estate development company first owned by the Perot family, will build it.
“You can imagine landing in at D/FW Airport and flying to Frisco in just matter of minutes,” Jeff Holden, Uber's chief product officer, told the crowd during the announcement. “You’d go from one aircraft straight to another. “
Frisco Station will be the first spot to have a revenue route, which the company hopes will open in 2020. Uber expects to launch "full-scale operations" on its network by 2023. Pilots will be involved at first, but the ultimate goal could be fully autonomous vehicles.
Last week's announcement brought a shudder of geeky excitement, but it doesn't temper all the well-based doubts that Uber's timeline is possible. The NASA announcement generated positive headlines, especially in Los Angeles, which now joins Dallas and Dubai in being partner cities.
For a reality check, let's first look at these Space Act Agreements. These agreements range from major to minor involvement and investment, so they do not immediately signify major research efforts. There are thousands of public-private partnerships governed by Space Act Agreements, all listed here. In the case of the agreement signed with Uber, it's categorized as "non-reimbursable." NASA defines this as an agreement in which "each partner bears the cost of its participation and no funds are exchanged between the parties."
The media hailed the announcement last week as a breakthrough, but few bothered to look at the actual agreement, which the company signed in January. So Uber "announced" a deal it had struck almost a year ago, and one that other companies (such as Go Pro) signed on to. Here's the document from NASA; click the corner to make it bigger.
NASA has committed $376,000 to this line item, which is a nice chunk of change until you realize the scope of the work and the fact these funds are supposed to stretch to 2022. And Uber, which is losing cash, doesn't get this money. It's not seed money or a contract for services.
The real value to Uber is NASA's interest in developing technology that can integrate drones into U.S. airspace. The value to NASA is contributing to something that the aerospace industry favors — a new market for new aircraft.
In 2015 NASA, created its Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management initiative. At the time, the agency was trying to figure out a way to open the skies to small drones to take photographs and maybe deliver some Amazon packages.
A few years later, and NASA is now, to use its media representatives' language, "embracing urban air mobility." This is a catchphrase that encompasses all the flying taxi, bus and trucking schemes being hatched from industry places like Bell Helicopters, Saab and others. NASA is trying to graduate the idea from small aircraft to those large enough to haul people. In this, it is chasing the ambitions of the private sector.
Uber has definite ideas to how to organize this aerial dance of vertical takeoff and landing aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, and it spells out some details in this public report:
A successful, optimized on-demand urban VTOL [vertical takeoff and landing aircraft] operation will necessitate a significantly higher frequency and airspace density of vehicles operating over metropolitan areas simultaneously. In order to handle this exponential increase in complexity, new ATC [air traffic control] systems will be needed. We envision low altitude operations being managed through a server request-like system that can deconflict the global traffic, while allowing UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and VTOLs to self-separate any potential local conflicts ... even in inclement weather.
On Nov. 7, a day before the Uber announcement, NASA released a love letter to urban air mobility. In it, NASA associate administrator for aeronautics Jaiwon Shin said the agency plans "to test the concepts and technologies that ... serve to make using autonomous vehicles, electric propulsion, and high density airspace operations in the urban environment safe, efficient and economically viable.”
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OK, so that's stuffy NASA press release language that says, "We want to be in on the ground level to help make this new mode of transportation work." It's a nod to those who feel NASA should help stimulate industry, not just spend money on rockets and space exploration. (It also mirrors a Trump administration effort, unveiled in late October, to make the FAA more quickly integrate drones into U.S. airspace.)
As Uber moves through the regulatory process, expect local airlines to be heavily involved. Anything that changes a flight route of a commercial airplane costs them time and money on fuel. Anything that costs them money is an enemy. Any enemy must be attacked, via Congress and their pull with the FAA.
Uber clearly wants some NASA credibility to help ease the FAA's concerns. Uber wants its large taxis to be included in any future airspace system designed for drones.
If it works, start watching the skies for real. As you're landing at D/FW, keep looking around. There could be an experimental flying taxi learning how to share the air with you.