Flying taxis are coming to DFW, and Mayor Mike Rawlings and Ross Perot Jr. are waving them in for a landing.
In Dallas on Tuesday, Uber announced plans to expand its ride-ordering app to the skies, with customers ordering helicopters as easily as they send for ground vehicles. The rides will not be like conventional helicopters, being quieter, safer and designed for urban environments. “It’s natural for Uber to turn our eyes to the air,” says Jeff Holden, the company’s chief product officer. “Push a button and get a flight.”
The company disclosed the initiative, which it calls Elevate, at a conference in Dallas' Union Station. The reason it happened here became clear during the first presentation, made by Holden to announce the company’s “vision.”
He revealed that Dallas is a partner city that will test the concept of these flying taxis, including the construction of vertiports where the aircraft can take off and land. The company will locate its first test veriport in the U.S. in Frisco, built by Hillwood, the real estate development company first owned by the Perot family. Dubai, the other partner city in the Elevate plan, will also examine the tech and business model.
“You can imagine landing in at DFW Airport and flying to Frisco in just matter of minutes,” Holden told the crowd. “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 happens in 2020. Uber expects "full-scale operations" to be launched on its network by 2023. Pilots will be involved at first, but the ultimate goal could be fully autonomous vehicles.
Ross Perot Jr., chairman of Hillwood, said that the location makes sense because it’s near the Dallas Cowboy’s new training facility. Follow-on locations include downtown Dallas, next to American Airlines Center, and possibly using the existing vertiport near the convention center.
“The big entertainment hubs, we can fairly quickly get these vertiports up,” Perot says.
Perot envisions the vehicles themselves could be manufactured in North Texas, possibly at empty airline maintenance facilities in Fort Worth. He also sees DFW as a logical center of pilot recruitment and training because of the location of major airlines here. “North Texas has one of the largest concentrations of pilots in the United States,” he says “They can be flying part time for Uber as this program launches.”
Hillwood has long been involved in aerospace industry, having been at the ground level of the continual expansion of DFW Airport since the 1980s. Aviation is a critical part of DFW, Perot said. “It’s a perfect market for the rollout,” he said Tuesday.
Perot wondered aloud why Hillwood would partner with Uber to promote this concept, especially this early. “Everyone needs a real estate developer,” he said, “Half of this business is politics.”
Local politicians are buying into the idea. Rawlings spoke at the event and Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price is also on board. “Mayor Rawlings has been incredible, and Mayor Price also, for their hospitality for this whole thing,” Holden says. “Dallas is kind of the perfect place for this. It has a rich history of aviation.”
That is an encoded phrase that means an appetite among public officials to accommodate the aviation industry. North Texas is home to many big aerospace companies, including Bell Helicopter and Lockheed Martin, and headquarters of major airlines. Other companies have large, if largely forgotten, outposts here: Raytheon, BAE and SpaceX. These firms bring jobs but also demand tax breaks and incentives and sometimes make life difficult at local airports that host their programs.
Sharing flying vehicles solves a lot of problems that plague urban areas, Uber argues. “It’s really east to demonize a car,” Holden says. “It’s not about the cars themselves, it’s how we use those cars. We use them individually, that’s where we run into problems.”
Congestion saps time and causes pollution, while parking takes up too much land because cars sit idle 95 percent of the time. Urban design, even in cities that have robust systems, still leaves too many people far way from public transit.
Helicopters have to be redesigned to accommodate daily urban trips. The big problems are their loud noise and high cost of maintenance. Holden says that calls distributed electrical propulsion “as close to a panacea as you get” for these issues.
Using next-generation batteries, aerospace companies are already working on electric powered vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, which the industry called eVTOL. Next generation batteries offer long duration flights and save aircraft weight that is better used for cargo and passengers. They are quieter and require less maintenance, since they enjoy the redundancy of multiple engines. Many aerospace companies spoke at the Uber Elevate summit, because they are working on the next gen programs that Uber is clearly interested in.
Bell, based in North Texas, and Uber have not formalized a partnership, but Bell says the companies are "exploring a number of opportunities." That includes hybrid electric propulsion and airspace control hardware ad software, both areas that Bell is already researching.
“While creating a real, viable urban air taxi network isn’t going to happen tomorrow,” says Mitch Snyder president and CEO of Bell. "This future is closer than many people realize."
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