The NASA Aerospace 'Ninjas' helping Uber Elevate
Uber is the $50bn tech behemoth that's become synonymous with ride-sharing worldwide but their ambitions extend far beyond just providing cars on-demand. The company have run a series of test projects over the years enabling riders to summon everything from exotic supercars to boats and even helicopters. And now, leveraging their unparalleled insight into the global mobility market, their conclusion is that the future of Urban Air Mobility lies in eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) and that led to the establishment in 2017 of Uber Elevate.
And where do you look for the brightest aeronautical minds on the planet? Well NASA, of course. Having poached some top minds and built all-star teams around them the company now expect to launch their UberAir passenger carrying service in 2023 in Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne and are simultaneously working on a drone delivery service to augment their highly successful UberEats offering.
They've assembled a team more than 100-strong to support their efforts, poaching a diverse cadre of experts - from designers and battery technicians from Apple to aerospace and automotive engineers from Airbus, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, NASA, Northrop Grumman and General Motors as well as airspace experts from the FAA (according to data sourced by Osinto from LinkedIn). They're also amassing lobbying clout in Washington D.C. with a trickle of seasoned political aides filling the Uber office there (as reported by Politico).
From engineers to civilian and military air traffic controllers this new class of 'Uber employees' are supported by a huge team of data scientists and mobility experts with enormous technical and financial resources behind them. Uber have further bolstered this with the establishment of their first Advanced Technology Centre outside of the US in Paris, France to embed the organisation in the European academic ecosystem with a focus on Artificial Intelligence (AI), automation and airspace management systems.
The wider team split their focus across several core areas:
Infrastructure / skyports
You can find the company's original whitepaper from October 2016 linked here - 'Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation' - and a video presenting their vision from July 2017 is below.
THE MARK MOORE EFFECT
One of the earliest and arguably most important hires into the team was Mark Moore (featured in the video above) - currently Uber Elevate's 'Director of Vehicle Engineering' - who came from NASA where he'd specialised in electric aircraft for some 30 years with a particular focus on VTOL, electrification and more specifically distributed electric propulsion (DEP).
A direct line can easily be drawn from Moore's work at NASA to the evolving concepts put forward by Uber and now progressing towards certification amongst their vehicle partners.
Take for example the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center's LEAPTech (Leading Edge Asynchronous Propeller Technology) project on which Moore was the Principle Investigator. It sought to prove the efficiency and hence environmental and economic benefits that tighter integration of electric propulsion and airframe design could yield. Note that one of the key contractors on that project, responsible for fabrication and design of the truck, wing, motor and system power was the then almost unheard of Joby Aviation - whose front-running S-4 eVTOL aircraft was unveiled in January 2020 along with a staggering $540m round of new investment. Today Joby are a key Uber Elevate partner and considered by many to be the world's front-running eVTOL manufacturer - they no doubt built heavily on their learnings from building the Hybrid-Electric Integrated Systems Testbed (HEIST) wing in the 2014-2015 LEAPTech project to get to where they are today.
Within NASA the project was always intended as a precursor to a new X-plane project that would seek to modify an Italian P2006T aircraft in stages to become fully electric and incorporate a HEIST-style wing. Moore was the Principle Investigator for NASA on that flight demonstrator too - it continues without him and is set to become the agency's first manned X-plane project in some twenty years. This all-electric X-57 General Aviation (GA) demonstrator aircraft could have transformative impact on the GA segment in the long-term, but the perceived slow progress of the project could either be seen as indicative of how NASA is struggling to keep pace with industry (some drawing parallels to what's happening with the Space Launch System vs SpaceX's Dragon / Falcon 9 programme in the space realm), or a cautionary tale as to the realistic pace of putting certified aerospace product through a strict regulatory regime of comprehensive flight test - depending on your bias.
Uber themselves have been clear that theirs is strictly a platform play - they'll not build eVTOL vehicles themselves (you can see a selection of the vehicles in development by their partners and others in our post Do eVTOL air taxis need a $1bn runway?).
NASA URBAN AIR MOBILITY - GRAND CHALLENGE
NASA certainly aren't sitting idly by as the Urban Air Mobility market develops however, and Uber were in fact announced as one of the 17 commercial partners to have signed an agreement to participate in the NASA Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Grand Challenge just yesterday. Together with the FAA the programme seeks industry partners in one of three categories:
Developmental flight testing
Developmental airspace simulation
Vehicle provider information exchange
Just one company was selected to provide a vehicle to fly in the initial event, no prizes for guessing that it was Joby Aviation. That's a mightily impressive accomplishment for a ten-year old aerospace upstart (whose founder is best known for making his money from a successful camera accessories business), especially when it's considered that other Uber Elevate partners and aviation stalwarts Bell and Boeing are also taking part, but only in the 'information exchange' category (as reported here by Avionics International) to begin with.
Uber will be testing their Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system in the programme which should provide useful data as they seek to bring it to market as part of their 'Elevate Cloud Services' (ECS) offering which they'll also use to deploy autonomous drones. Testing of delivery drones to augment the company's UberEats offering is already underway in San Diego.
The company confirmed to Avionics International (as reported here) that it has applied for a Part 135 approval from the FAA for drone delivery operations. This is in contrast to UAM where Uber have stated that they won't seek to be an operator, pushing that risk back onto other parties who'll presumably not only have to type certify their aircraft but either themselves apply for an Air Operators Certificate (AOC) or find a third party willing and able to write an Operations Manual for their aircraft and have it approved by eg. the FAA / EASA. We've seen that the likes of Germany's Lilium are actively pursuing a vertically-integrated approach - they seek to design, manufacture and operate their eVTOL Lilium Jet aircraft themselves and as such will be in direct competition with Uber and their partners. You can read more about Lilium, their Chinese and European investors and unique aircraft and strategy in our article here.
Uber's UTM will have one enormous advantage over UAM competitors - integration with their existing platform that enables seamless multi-modal connectivity. From a passenger perspective the seamlessness of being able to book both an eVTOL shared flight and connecting cars at each end of their journey seems likely to offer unparalleled convenience. And they're already refining it through their UberCopter offering in New York, today.
NASA UTM PEDIGREE - THOMAS PREVOT
What Mark Moore brought to the team in vehicle design Thomas Prevot brings to UTM with over twenty years working as a Research Engineer on a variety of projects at the NASA Ames Research Center where he headed up the Airspace Operations Lab in Silicon Valley. Managing the Safe Autonomous Systems Operations (SASO) project and working closely with the FAA on evaluating future UAS integrations and UTM solutions he can be considered a world-leading expert in airspace operations and management having also developed NASA's widely used air traffic simulation system the Multi-Aircraft Control System (MACS).
Prevot is 'Director, Airspace Systems' at Uber and is no doubt a lynchpin in their plans to operate a highly efficient airspace operations network capable of serving the company's enormous user base of 75m+ with not just rides, but food. He already oversees a system that's serving helicopter rides in New York and UberEats deliveries in San Diego. Shown below is their six-rotor rotating-wing delivery drone concept (pictured below) unveiled in Q4 '19, for which they're rumoured to be actively looking for a manufacturing partner. Payload as reported by The Verge is 'a meal for two'.
The range and duration (as reported by Aviation Today) are said to be 18 minutes / 18 miles with the design targeting both simplicity and a low noise signature. The model is for so-called 'dark kitchens' to load the drones with food and existing drivers to complete last-mile delivery by road. It's a concept that might match well with departed Uber CEO's Travis Kalanick's 'Cloud Kitchens' model. Parent company City Storage Systems was said to have been buying up London-based dark kitchens in 2019 (as reported by The Financial Times 03/19).
WE'RE THE MARKET, BUILD *THIS*
As Moore noted in a 2018 talk for the Vertical Flight Society the Elevate team seek to be a part of building nothing less than a new means of transportation, and so:
Instead of the 'If we build it the market will come' approach to vehicle design...[we're]...turning it on its head "We're the market, we're representing the users, we've got 65 million users already who we can provide access to...let's develop the entire network to make sense together to provide the optimal user experience the optimal costs, the most efficient networks and do it right from the beginning.
Through their annual Elevate Summits Uber have sought to stimulate an industry, and been quite successful in the United States at least. We can't think of any other player having such a noticeable impact in Europe for example.
The model they're employing is both transformative and commercially astute - employing a 'freemium-esque' approach to nurturing the Urban Air Mobility market. They're providing a lot to everyone for free, but reserving all the juiciest and most detailed data only for Uber Elevate partners.
In vehicle design for example Uber have supplied a series of Common Reference Models (CRMs) that anyone can open up and experiment with using freely available software such as NASA's Vehicle Sketch Pad (VSP) - which anyone can download here. Uber's three freely available CRMs can be found here.
Note the similarity of these designs to not only Joby's S-4 but to the concept unveiled by Hyundai in Jan '20 - the more cynical amongst us might suggest that it's simply a skinned Common Reference Model with the Hyundai logo pasted on top... That might well suggest the lengths to which Uber is going to attract automotive manufacturers to the eVTOL game - potentially delivering an entire-aircraft design to an aspiring manufacturer with the appetite, ability and capital to mass produce them. A smart play, and something alluded to in the 2016 whitepaper - production volumes need to exceed those of existing aircraft manufacturers to achieve the aircraft operating costs Uber aspires to, which will in turn make UberAir trip prices comparable to ground transport alternatives.
In fact if we look at an earlier sub-scale demonstrator hybrid-UAV project that Moore led on the development of at NASA, the GL-10 'Greased Lightning'...
...and the Hyundai concept unveiled at CES in Las Vegas Q1 2020...
...the shared lineage looks obvious, and thus the maturation of DEP eVTOL aircraft under Moore's stewardship in just a few years can clearly be seen.
One notable change in several of the eVTOL concepts we've reviewed of late, and seemingly a concession to certification requirements, is the separation of lift and thrust devices - which seems inefficient at least in terms of weight. Wisk's Cora aircraft has a similar setup as we understand will Vertical Aerospace's forthcoming aircraft set to be unveiled at the 2020 Farnborough Airshow this summer. Moore has spoken to this previously and it's to reduce complexity and increase safety through redundancy - the most expensive part of UAM operations according to Uber's forecasts is maintenance and as such designs are pushed towards simplicity.
There are some learnings that Uber are keen to 'bake in' to their prescriptive requirements for vehicle manufacturers - such as an all-electric powertrain, 150mph cruise speed, space for four passengers and separation between them and a pilot. A full list of the vehicle requirements can be found here and will be discussed in more detail in a future post. Again, more detailed requirements and rich datasets are being shared only with Uber Elevate partners.
AS COOL AS THESE VEHICLES ARE...
To quote Moore who's a self-confessed 'vehicle guy':
This is not all about the vehicle...it is about developing a new system...new infrastructure and new networks.
Uber Elevate are seeking to do nothing short of accelerate the development of a new aviation industry, leveraging key technologies like eVTOL and DEP that are enabling an entirely new and more sustainable way to move passengers and cargo, potentially with zero carbon emissions.
The vehicle capability gaps are being addressed, certification of many different aircraft is underway around the world and bringing the automotive manufacturers into the fold will certainly help with things like providing relatively standardised cabin experiences across different aircraft types - as we are used to in cars.
The next big job is public acceptance, and here it'd be fair to say Uber has something of a patchy record - having trampled across rules and regulations in markets across the world - just ask a London cab driver what he thinks of the company and you can see that the 'growth at any cost' Silicon Valley steamroller approach doesn't always win you friends.
People are nervous about the idea of delivery drones flying over their heads, but access to hot food, fast is a powerful way to win over anyone who can afford a takeaway meal. You only need look to the community fightback against Google spin-off Wing's drone delivery trial in Canberra however to see how quickly irritated communities can coalesce around what they perceive as a noisy impingement on their lives that has no benefit for them - read more on that and the company in our post here.
However where passenger air transport is concerned helicopters have long suffered from two bugbears - they're perceived as being the preserve of the rich and inconsiderate and they make a lot of particularly irritating noise. Issues Uber is becoming increasingly familiar with no doubt as they pursue conventional rotary craft operations through UberCopter in New York, going head-to-head with established brands like Blade.
Rumours of fleets of helicopters 1,000 strong being deployed in Melbourne are already circulating in the local press and being described as "living under a demented whipper-snipper" in an ABC article. Community engagement and controlled messaging it seems will be an issue on which Uber and the UAM market as a whole must increasingly focus their efforts.
Appendix - Mark Moore's presentation at the 2018 Transformative VTOL workshop: