Going Direct: Urban Air Taxis: Let’s Talk Fake News

Uber Elevate Multicopter
A screen capture from an Uber video showing its vision of a future multicopter friendly urban landing zone.

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There’s been a spate of stories lately about the rise of companies investing in the development of new forms of air transportation aimed at giving people a quick and easy way to get from A to B in an urban environment. The aircraft are mostly some form of multi-copter, you know, like the little drones you can pick up at Best Buy for anywhere from a couple hundred bucks to a couple thousand. I’m guessing the thinking goes like this, and it’s a guess because they’re not thoughts I’ve ever had myself.

"Okay, so these little drones are really cool. They’re not that hard to control—you can even use your phone to do it. Yeah, but what if they were bigger, big enough to carry people around. Wouldn’t that be cool? Okay, it’s settled, let’s do it. Calling the venture capital firms now.”

This is all well and good, but when it comes to aviation there are a few steps to take into consideration before launching in the wild blue here. First, before I’d spend any money, I’d ask myself if it’s ever been done before. The answer to this is “yes” and “no.” Yes, there’s urban air transportation now. Helicopters do it. In case you’re not familiar with them, they are a prehistoric form of quad copter. And they carry millions of people all over urban areas taking them anywhere they want to go at cheap prices. Well, that last part was all a lie. Think, opposite of that. Helicopters are enormously expensive to operate, they can go into very, very few places in urban settings, usually a handful of dedicated helicopter ports. In New York City, one of the biggest cities in the world, there are just a few grouped together along the East River or Hudson River shorelines. Why is that? Because helicopters can’t really fly in urban environments. They can fly around the edges of cities. So if you take a helicopter to, say, the East 30th Street Heliport, you then need to get ground transpiration to where you’re going from there. The helicopter isn’t ground transportation. It’s air transportation. Limos and Town Cars are ground transport.

The idea of small heli-style pod craft operating in the city is an interesting one. Where do they land? How do you keep innocent bystanders from getting chopped to pieces (which wreaks havoc with insurance rates)? And how do you avoid the dozens or hundreds of other multicopters buzzing about the canyons of Manhattan?

A tweet by Sporty’s VP and frequent P&P contributor John Zimmerman raised the question of how urban air taxis would deal with bad weather, the kind he highlighted in the tweet with the METAR at an airport showing 500 overcast with seven miles of visibility with winds gusting from 31 to 41 knots? And he asked, “How do you out-innovate Mother Nature?”

And how do you out-innovate decades of experience we have with a couple of generations of really smart people who would have loved to have created just such a system of close-in public air transport but who couldn’t not because their tech wasn’t good enough but because the environment was antagonistic to such operations?

You don’t. But by now I should probably stop complaining and see if I can’t get some of those sweet VC bucks before they dry up. Looking at it that way, I’m sure it’s doable. Don’t ask me how, but I’m sure it is.

One thought on “Going Direct: Urban Air Taxis: Let’s Talk Fake News

  1. Robert,
    In Dubai (where this is already being tested as we speak), the plan is to fly UAVs on prescribed routes that are designed for the drones and would be restricted airspace only for that purpose. The point, apparently, is to fly above the automobile traffic, point to point, to save lots of time. Dubai also has the worlds only indoor ski area, tallest building, and largest aquarium (in a mall, no less). All of those things couldn’t be done until they were done. Dubai also happens to be a monarchy, so getting things approved is a little easier if the right person wants it!

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