Editor's Log

May 2018 Issue

Meet George Jetson


A flurry of news coverage in recent months is highlighting plans by ride-hailing company Uber to elevate the transportation model it’s promoted from the surface to the sky. Company CEO Dara Khosrowshahi predicted “[f]lying cars will be zipping across U.S. skies within the coming decade,” according to Bloomberg, amid plans for UberAir, a flying taxi service. Various metropolitan areas are targeted as test cases, with the company reportedly aiming a trial for Southern California in 2020. We’ll see.

Uber has developed a 98-page white paper describing its planned service and discussing the technical, regulatory and practical complications remaining to be resolved. It’s a surprisingly broad peek into what’s necessary to realize this idea, which hinges on many questions, not least of which is developing a new class of aircraft, and by itself is worthy of lengthy discussion.

According to Uber, one of its ultimate goals will be to develop autonomous vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) craft employing direct electrical propulsion. Think of a five-pound drone allowing 20 minutes of battery-powered flight time scaled up to carry four or more passengers from, say, San Jose, Calif., to downtown San Francisco. It’s very reminiscent of the 1960s-era animated television program, “The Jetsons.”

As recent events involving somewhat autonomous ground vehicles bearing brand names like Uber’s and Tesla have demonstrated, self-driving technology isn’t ready for prime time. While Uber has identified numerous challenges it faces, which include but are not limited to certifying the aircraft, the operation and the pilots—at least until autonomous VTOLs are approved—its optimism that reasonable solutions to these regulatory challenges will be accomplished in a timely manner is...adorable.

The good news is that the autonomy Uber envisions for its VTOLs likely will trickle down to personal aircraft, some of elements of which are already deployed in the latest autopilots. There’s a long way to go, though, and satisfying the FAA will be a major hurdle. Good luck, Uber. Meanwhile, get off my lawn.