Uber drone? Company plans aerial transport tech to beat traffic

Taxi giant is taking the sharing economy to new heights

Ehang 184 personal transport drone

There was a time when the ideas of autonomous flight and personal aerial transport vehicles were restricted to the realms of science fiction, but as drone technology continues to evolve, those notions a seeming less and less ridiculous. Now, car-sharing platform Uber has admitted that it’s seriously looking into personal flight technology – an Uber drone of sorts.

Speaking at an event Nantucket Conference, Uber products head Jeff Holden revealed that Uber has plans to make short-haul flying in major cities a reality.

During the event, Holden referred to the technology as VTOL – vertical take-off and landing. So the idea is that a small aircraft could pick up and drop off passengers without needing much space to take-off and land, which would be perfect for congested cities. In all likelihood, the vehicles Uber has in mind would have several rotors and run on electricity.

Uber drone
Self-driving cars now, an Uber Drone next? (Image: Uber)

Uber Drone: No surprise company is getting into the space

The move comes as no surprise given Uber’s innovation in the self-driving car space. The company is currently testing driverless cars in Pittsburgh, and CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick predicted in 2014 that human drivers would eventually be replaced. Sure, he was talking about cab drivers, but the same logic can be applied to aerial transport, too.

Speaking about cars, Kalanick explained that, “when those bad boys are made, the way to think about the magic of self-driving vehicles is that the reason Uber is expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car, you’re paying for the other dude in the car. And so, when there’s no other dude in the car the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle … And of course that means safer rides, that means more environmentally friendly, that means a lot of things.” Again, this was back in 2014, but it’s not difficult to apply the Uber CEO’s line of thought to the new technology under development.

Getting back to the present, Holden suggested that, with VTOL, Uber wants to “offer customers as many options as possible to move around”. He also predicted that the program could be in place within a decade.

“It could change cities and how we work and live,” Holden said, pointing out that traffic on the ground could be phased out in favor of rooftop arrivals and departures.

Anyone who has been keeping an eye on the drone industry will know that aerial transport of the personal variety is already pretty far along the road to development. Certainly, it’s past the conception stage that Uber appears to be at. The market leader at the moment is arguably Ehang, a Chinese manufacturer that, as well as producing consumer photography drones, has a bigger product on the way, too.

Uber drone ideas
Ehang 184

Unveiled at CES 2016 in January, the 184 is a massive autonomous quadcopter built for a single passenger. Ehang expects it to have a flight time of around 23 minutes and an average speed of 60mph. We don’t know exactly when the 184 will be coming, but rumors from Ehang suggest it could be as soon as later this year. It looks pretty exciting, but with a price tag expected of $300,000, solo aerial transport might be limited to the rich and famous for now.

It’s not all that clear how legal Ehang’s offering would be in most countries anyway. The 184 is well over the maximum weight limit as posed, for example, by the FAA, and would also violate rules regarding autonomous flight (as there’s no pilot) and line of sight (as there’s no pilot to supervise the journey from the ground).

One thing’s for sure: Autonomous and aerial personal transport is no longer the stuff of dreams. Solo transport vehicles are coming to a city near you. Maybe not this year or the next, but it’s a matter of time.