Uber Partners With NASA to Bring Flying Taxis to LA by 2020

Uber has partnered with NASA to research air-traffic management, and will conduct tests of new aerial vehicles in Los Angeles.

Ride-sharing — or should we say fly-sharing — vehicles could zoom through the skies of Los Angeles as soon as 2020.

Uber unveiled today an agreement with NASA that advances the company’s plan to bring flying vehicles to major US cities. The agreement with the space agency aims to develop traffic management systems for unmanned aerial vehicles. It was signed on Jan. 26 and allocates funds up to $100,162 over five years.

Speaking at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, Uber chief product officer Jeff Holden said the vehicles could carry four passengers and fly at a top speed of 200 mph.

“We are very much embracing the regulatory bodies and starting very early in discussions about this and getting everyone aligned with the vision,” Holden said, according to Reuters.

The company also announced that Los Angeles would be the third city, following Dallas-Fort Worth and Dubai, in which the service would be tested.

LA Mayor Eric Carcetti said in a statement: “LA is the perfect testing ground for this new technology, and I look forward to seeing it grow in the coming years.”

Uber joins several other companies that are working with NASA to develop methods for managing fleets of aerial vehicles.

The agreement funds phase 4 of work, which involves testing the service over high-density urban areas in March 2019. Previous phases tested unmanned aerial vehicle services over light- and moderately-populated areas.

"On-demand aviation,” the company said in an October 2016 white paper on its flying-taxi service, “has the potential to radically improve urban mobility, giving people back time lost in their daily commutes."

The company says insights gained from its ride-sharing business means it can empathize with frustrated, daily commuters.

“We view helping to solve this problem as core to our mission and our commitment to our rider base,” the company says in the white paper. “Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently, urban air transportation will use three-dimensional airspace to alleviate transportation congestion on the ground."

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Uber argues that developing infrastructure for its flying-vehicle network would be significantly cheaper than investments in roads, bridges, tunnels, and railways. Airplanes could take off from helipads, unused land near highways, or even the tops of parking garages. But Uber acknowledges that many barriers remain potential bumps in the road — or flight path. They include battery efficiency, certification with the Federal Aviation Administration, air traffic control procedures, and pilot training remain.

Earlier this year, Uber hired NASA veterans Mark Moore and Tom Prevot to assist in developing vehicle design and air-traffic management software. The company faces stiff competition from other firms developing drones or small passenger aircraft aimed at speeding up urban deliveries and reducing congestion.

Uber operates a taxi service in more than 600 cities worldwide in which individuals use their own vehicles to ferry people from place to place. The service is generally cheaper than taxis, but has triggered backlash among taxi drivers and public officials concerned about labor and safety conditions. In September, the city of London stripped Uber of its operating license. The company is appealing the decision, and its service continues to run pending an outcome.

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