From the Ground Up: Uber Elevate in 2020
Uber keeps talking about flying its eVTOL aircraft in Dallas-Ft. Worth and Dubai in 2020. Vertiflite asks, “Is 2020 really possible?”
By Kenneth I. Swartz
Since the release of the Uber Elevate white paper in October 2016, the San Francisco-based ride-sharing technology company has charged forward, widely sharing its vision of a revolutionary urban on-demand air network with a wide range of aerospace, municipal, real estate, financial, regulatory and other stakeholders.
An integral part of the Uber Elevate master plan is the utilization of electric aviation technology to drive the transformation of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) commuter aircraft from the mechanical to the digital age.
Electric aviation is approaching a tipping point, and Uber has become a major champion of the emerging technology.
The Elevate business plan is to create an entirely new urban on-demand transportation market by adding another choice to its app — UberAIR — that will give users the option of traveling between an origin and destination on a multimodal ground/ aviation network in one-third the surface travel time.
In July, Vertiflite caught up with Mark Moore, Uber’s globetrotting new director of engineering for aviation, to better understand what Uber plans to accomplish in the three years leading up to the flight demonstration programs in Dallas-Fort Worth and Dubai in 2020 and the launch of the first commercial flights with new electric VTOL (eVTOL) aircraft in 2023.
Moore joined Uber in February 2017, following a 32-year career with NASA focused on conceptual design studies of advanced aircraft concepts, including VTOL design and technology developments, and on-demand mobility investments. He’s a well-known proponent of electric aviation and is now very actively engaged in implementing a concept he once analyzed and proselytized.
Shifting roles has been a “hugely energizing experience at a very exciting time in aviation,” said Moore, who believes a major disruption will occur in the vertical flight industry once eVTOL aircraft are introduced that offer a threefold reduction in direct operating costs, while producing 15–20 dB less noise than today’s quietest helicopters.
The next three years are critical to incubate the concept, he said, after which Uber expects to sign order commitments or purchase agreements with several eVTOL manufacturers that would justify investment in an aircraft certification program.
On the Ground
Uber officially launched its ride hailing mobile application in 2011 with a black luxury car service (now UberBLACK), where passengers can get a chauffeured ride through their mobile phones. The company launched its ride sharing application in 2012 and today serves 65 million unique monthly users in more than 300 cities worldwide. Businesses like Uber and AirBnB are part of the new sharing economy where assets like vehicles and homes are shared with users via a mobile app for a fee.
Today, an Uber user can travel across town by UberPOOL or by UberX. UberPOOL costs one third of the price of UberX and picks
up people at similar locations in a shared vehicle. UberSUV offers individual travel in a luxury sport utility vehicle.
Uber said ridesharing services (of all forms) today account for about 6% of all surface journeys, but this could grow to about 25% by 2030 as younger generations forgo private car ownership and embrace ride sharing at a faster rate. At the Uber Elevate Summit, Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden stated that in the first seven months of 2016, UberPOOL had reduced miles driven by 312 million, cut CO2 emissions by 61,244 US tons (55,560 metric tons), and saved 6.2 million gallons (23.5 million liters) of fuel.
Whatever the positive impact Uber may have had or will have on taking cars off the road, development of highways and public transit networks in many regions has not kept pace with travel demand. As a consequence, rush hour commutes are getting longer, congestion is getting heaver and average highway speeds in some major US metropolitan regions now average 22 mph (35 km/h) at peak times of the day, said Uber.
Gridlock has a huge negative impact on individual productivity and work-life balance, but it also provides a unique opportunity to put new and disruptive electric aviation technologies to work.
Into the Sky
Uber Elevate’s goal is to build an entire eVTOL “ecosystem” that encompasses all the different elements required to create an urban on-demand air travel network.
One part of this ecosystem includes the developers and manufacturers of eVTOL aircraft and the associated electric motor and battery technology.
Another part is the vertiport infrastructure, which requires close cooperation with real estate developers and local communities.
Other important elements include charging stations, air traffic management, weather monitoring and training systems, which are also needed to make eVTOL commuting a reality.
The new vertiports will be part of a nodal network where surface and air routes intersect to minimize air and ground travel times.
Uber plans that the first vertiports will be built on top of existing buildings — such as elevated parking garages — to minimize development times and costs. The air portal design will also have to be very efficient to support the 4.5-minute turnaround between the moment an eVTOL aircraft touches the ground and the moment it takes off with new passengers.
Moore said “fleet efficiency is directly proportional to your trip density divided by your surface area. That’s going to determine how many ‘dead heads’, what your ‘dead ratio’ is, and how big of a fleet you need to be able to provide on-demand service.” [The term “dead head” here refers to empty legs of a flight schedule, such as to pick passengers up when no one is going to that vertiport. — Ed.]
A dense urban market with a large population could potentially employee hundreds of eVTOL aircraft and more than 1,000 vehicles in a large mature network.
Moore said the optimum vehicle size is an aircraft with four or five seats, including a pilot. Interior design will receive a lot of attention to ensure passenger comfort and safety, and to ensure there is no dreaded “middle seat.”
Uber struck a deal with Daimler in January, where the automaker will provide self-driving Mercedes cars — owned and operated by Daimler — to pick up and drop off passengers via the Uber app.
Moore expects that some of the eVTOL manufacturers will follow the Daimler example and others will sell their aircraft to a leasing company, very similar to what happens today in commercial aviation. “It’s much more like a lease or a revenue share for those self-driving cars,” said Moore.
In fact, Uber expects its flights to average 12 minutes, with aircraft utilization exceeding 2,000 flight hours per year, like scheduled airlines. This roughly translates into about 8,000 flights, and about 16,000 takeoffs and landings, per year per aircraft. And, like with the Uber app, the company just wants a small percentage of the revenue for what it sees as millions of flights per year.
The Elevate service model is going to be similar to a commercial airline network, but with most flights confined to 50 miles. Some dense urban markets like Mexico City, Mumbai or São Paulo are so congested that average trip distances will be less.
Uber expects to achieve a system-wide load factor of 67%, which translates to an average 2.7 people per flight.
High-quality operators will be essential to achieving low direct operating costs, high trip reliability and high productivity, as well as to provide aircraft maintenance and professional pilot training.
In an apples-to-oranges comparison, Moore expects the cost of an UberAIR flight on the Elevate network to be similar to the retail price of an UberX ride (which has built-in profit).
High aircraft utilization and high-volume vehicle production will both be used to reduce aircraft cost per available seat mile.
The greatest direct operating expense will be the pilot’s salary, since the energy and maintenance costs of an eVTOL aircraft are expected to be significantly less than those of a conventional helicopter.
Transformative Vertical Lift
Moore believes the convergence of three technologies will enable the rapid development of a new generation of eVTOL aircraft with the competitive operating economics and low noise characteristics required for the Elevate “ecosystem” to succeed.
This includes the advent of distributed electric propulsion (DEP), rapid improvements in battery specific density and cycle life, and new advances in autonomous piloting systems for automobiles and aircraft.
“Eight years ago, the idea of self-driving cars would have been laughed at, but now all car makers are engaged in their development,” said Moore. In fact, the use case for urban VTOL operations is anchored in electric aviation, which offers “some pretty breathtaking capabilities in terms of mission [time] reduction, direct operating cost reduction, energy use reduction and maintenance reduction.”
Moore believes that current lithium ion battery technology can offer about 85% of what Uber needs for eVTOL aircraft. These are batteries in the 200 kW/kg to 260 kW/kg range. The gap in specific energy and cycle life will probably be closed in the next few years.
Higher-capacity batteries in the 400 kW/kg range are in development, but still extremely expensive and cycle limited.
Fortunately, electric motors are the embodiment of simplicity, with only one moving part mounted in a set of bearings.
The flight demonstration programs launching three years from now in Dallas-Fort Worth and Dubai are designed to refine the Elevate concept and mitigate risk.
“If you deconstruct the user experience, there are three key places where Uber needs to be investing,” said Moore. These are: the establishment of high-volume air corridors through Class B airspace, validating the low noise characteristics of distributed electric propulsion aircraft, and confirming passenger acceptance of eVTOL designs that don’t look like helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft.
Uber will take a “crawl, walk, run” approach to the demonstration program, starting with a few vertiports and gradually expanding the number of nodes over time.
In Dallas-Fort Worth, Uber will be working with Hillwood Properties, one of the largest private real estate developers and investors in the US, to establish the vertiports at company-owned sites.
Class B Airspace
All the major metropolitan areas Uber is considering for the Elevate program are near or within highly restrictive Class B controlled airspaces used by commercial passenger flights.
“It’s absolutely clear to Uber that it can’t optimize an urban on-demand eVTOL network without efficient airspace management from day one,” said Moore.
“You can’t be flying from Frisco Station [in north Dallas] towards downtown Dallas” and be asked to hold prior to entering Class B airspace “and then five minutes later they say, ‘We’re too busy. You’re going to have to fly around’.”
“I’ve done more than 25 helicopter rides in the last four months and that actually happens quite frequently as you’re approaching Class B.”
Uber is convinced that it can fly 50 aircraft around a city with minimal problems, but that does not create an efficient network or get to the point where it’s a scaled transportation system.
“We need to be showing that we’re able to fly 500 to 1,000 aircraft in and around the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” said Moore, with at least 30% of these aircraft being able to utilize these throughput corridors in Class B airspace that don’t require a controller to approve them every time they come to the Class B border.
“Next year, there will be a series of tests that essentially validate different simulations that we’re doing. It’s really important that we can show that we can operate in and around Class B airspace without delays and that we can do it in a high-capacity way.”
Uber expects most flights through Class B airspace to occur at altitudes between 500 and 1,000 ft (150–300 m) with the absolute maximum case at 1,500 ft (450 m).
Flight testing will run through 2018 and 2019 using proxy aircraft (helicopters and general aviation aircraft) if new eVTOL designs are not yet available.
Recently, Uber hired an expert in unmanned traffic management (UTM) systems from NASA to support its efforts. These systems designed for unmanned aircraft can be readily used to create an entire low-altitude airspace management system for manned and unmanned aircraft.
Dallas and Dubai were also selected for the demonstration projects because they are weather-friendly locations where low visibility, high winds and gusts, and icing conditions are less common.
Moore believes the network will have a huge advantage in terms of the main weather concern — low visibility — because the aircraft will only be flying from known vertiport locations and will have very precise mapping of the neighboring area used for low-altitude approaches and departures.
In the future, Uber also expects to equip each aircraft with a small atmospheric sensing module that will continuously provide atmospheric weather data to a sophisticated modeling program to support precise micro climate predictions.
When it comes to noise, the minimum thresholds provided to prospective aircraft developers call for the vehicles to be “insanely quiet.”
The noise limits also constrain the upper size of the vehicle, since the heavier the vehicle, the more thrust it requires and the more noise it generates.
There are 30 licensed helipads in the San Francisco area, but only two are in regular use for helicopter air ambulance operations. The local community is unwilling to see the other heliports used because of the noise.
In the Los Angeles area, there are more than 313 heliports, but most are not being used and could be converted into vertiports for the Elevate network. This is prompting Uber to take detailed noise measurements at locations being considered for vertiports and eVTOL routes in many cities. The data will include background noise levels as well as the frequencies that occur.
This data will be used to determine at what point the noise of an eVTOL aircraft will be undetectable in every neighborhood.
Air Vehicle Development
Uber estimates it will cost aircraft makers between $25M and $30M to design and build proof-of-concept aircraft for use in the demonstration program that launches in 2020.
Uber isn’t funding any of the proof-of-concept aircraft designs — it is instead trying to facilitate discussions with venture capitalists — but the company is directing its investment dollars toward critical aspects of the ecosystem.
“It is very much our role to say, “These are the minimum thresholds that we will accept for any vehicle to be put on our network,” said Moore.
For starters, Uber requires the eVTOL aircraft to be “faster than a helicopter.”
“As we looked at specific analysis and exact trips that would be taken by Uber users, it’s absolutely clear that speed matters. Anything slower than 150 mph [240 km/h] is really not going to be a productive vehicle that makes money, generates lots of revenue passenger miles and satisfies the user time benefit,” said Moore.
More than half of the two dozen different eVTOL aircraft programs currently being tracked by AHS International’s www.eVTOL.news website feature wings to achieve higher cruise speeds, better thrust-to-drag ratios and lower energy consumption.
Each aircraft manufacturer is making its own technical decisions regarding the aircraft design that represents the best combination of ingredients or specifications to meet the Uber mission or other applications.
Mitigating the risks will give Uber the confidence it needs to sign purchase orders with several vehicle manufacturers that will justify aircraft development and certification programs to support the first vehicle deliveries in 2023.
Moore said Uber is not going to utilize multi-copters in the Elevate program, noting that they have a lower speed and efficiency than a helicopter (both optimized for hovering), and a range limited by battery power.
Moore believes it is going to cost between $150M and $300M to certify these four-to-five-passenger eVTOL aircraft.
This is more than a conventional aircraft because of the new technologies the aircraft contain, such as electric propulsion, batteries, digital fly-by-wire flight critical software and autonomy systems.
Moore expects most aircraft certified for entry into service after 2023 will be done so under the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) Part 23 or European Aviation Safety Agency’s (EASA’s) CS-23, with a number of additional standards developed through the ASTM consensus standards process relating to electric propulsion, batteries, affordable digital fly-by-wire control, etc.
The new FAA Part 23 consensus standards framework will go into effect at the end of August this year; Uber understands that as long as the eVTOL aircraft have wings, Part 23 for general aviation aircraft — rather than Part 27 for rotorcraft — will apply.
Further, EASA has recently introduced “Part 21 Proportionality,” which lets manufacturers produce up to 10 aircraft in the four-passenger range to prove out the market acceptance prior to certifying the aircraft.
“What’s exciting is that EASA will even permit these aircraft to be operated commercially in revenue service, prior to a company making a major commitment on an expensive development and certification program,” said Moore.
Uber is now working with the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) to encourage the FAA to create a similar framework to allow US manufacturers to conduct market trials prior to certification.
In April, Uber signed up five aircraft manufacturers — Bell Helicopter, Aurora Flight Sciences, Embraer, Pipistrel and Mooney — as partners in the Elevate program, and is open to all aircraft manufacturers participating.
One major attraction for aerospace manufacturers is that demand for eVTOL aircraft might be significantly larger than for conventional helicopters and general aviation aircraft today.
High-volume eVTOL production represents an exciting opportunity for any manufacturer, as does the opportunity to share in the operational risks for a share of the revenues.
The initial certification process will be expensive, but costs should go down as new digital and electronic technology is proven.
Autonomy and Pilot Training
Uber expects to take delivery of the first 50 certified eVTOL aircraft in 2023, which will require 100 commercial helicopter pilots.
When Elevate really takes off, the need for pilots will be enormous. Uber is already working with partners to train former military helicopter pilots to fly the new eVTOL aircraft, leveraging the training they received from the US government, as well as advances in simulator technology.
“We believe that the FAA is actually being quite reasonable as they talk to all of us about getting to autonomous flight. That is, they need proof that this software has accounted for every single corner case and been validated before you’re going to have autonomous aircraft flying around the sky,” said Moore.
“Essentially what we’ll be doing on the autonomy front is the same thing that we’re doing for self-driving cars in Pittsburgh and Phoenix today. That is, the driver or pilot is just a safety device, which backs up the autonomy. This gets into all sorts of discussions of how to design this so that you keep the pilot engaged with a human interface — that he’s not just a security cop, not doing anything and then all of a sudden the vehicle does something wrong and he has to fix it in two seconds after being disengaged and half asleep.”
“Part of the solution that we’re advocating is you build in this background autonomy, you have a commercially rated pilot, likely for the first 5 to 10 years while you’re gathering all of this data and proving that the software can be absolutely failsafe.”
However, Uber recognizes that fully autonomous operations can only occur with passenger acceptance. The system may be capable of great things, but some people will always place their trust in a human pilot.
Sidebar: Is 2020 Really Possible?
About the Author
Ken Swartz runs aerospace marketing communications agency Aeromedia Communications in Toronto, Canada. He specializes in contract public relations, freelance writing, and social media marketing for the aviation and aerospace industry. He has reported on the helicopter industry for 40 years. In 2010, he received the HAI “Communicator of the Year” award. He can be reached at email@example.com.