12 Jan 2018 13:15 IST

No flight of fancy this: Uber air taxi could soon take off in Mumbai

Cab aggregator sees potential in providing short-distance services

Travelling from one end of Mumbai to the other could soon take 5-6 minutes instead of 1-2 hours if Uber’s plans to offer air taxis in Mumbai take off.

The cab aggregator, which is working with 6-7 different vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, sees big potential for air taxis in India, especially cities such as Mumbai where cars can barely move during peak hours.

In a near future, you could book yourself an air taxi, exactly the way you currently book a cab on the Uber app. The company could soon begin talks with the Centre for testing these flights.

Closer than you think

Sounds like 10 years in the making? Uber doesn’t think so.

“It is much closer to reality than you an imagine,” Mark Moore, Engineering Director of Aviation at Uber, told BusinessLine . Moore worked at NASA for 30 years before joining Uber last year to work on the company’s flying taxi initiative, Uber Elevate. He served as the chief technologist for on-demand mobility at NASA, focussing on design studies of advanced aircraft concepts.

“We are talking with a lot of governments across the world. India makes a lot of sense, particularly in densely populated areas. We would love to work with the government,” Moore said.

The focus of developing these aircraft is centred around electric flying cars to begin with, which would go completely autonomous over the years. But having enough battery power for an aircraft to fly is one of the biggest challenges currently. Moore expects that within 3-5 years, we would have sufficiently powered batteries to be doing 90-100 km ranges. And with new chargers, these flying cars could be charged from 30 per cent of battery capacity to 80 per cent within five minutes, so that companies like Uber could keep doing these missions very quickly — just five minutes of stop and then the next flight.

“So many people point to battery as a technology gap. It’s not there because we don’t need to go 200 miles (321 km). We only need to go short urban trips and satisfy that pent-up demand because of the grid lock that exists in these cities.

“In cities like Mumbai, distances are not that long, but it takes very long to get there. In cities like Dallas, the longest distance is 45 miles. In Mumbai, if you can even go 6-7 (9-11 km) miles, it is quite a meaningful trip because ground travel takes so much time.”

Giving the example of a German full electric VTOL (vertical take off and landing) company, e-volo, Moore said that while their technology is a low-efficiency one, making the vehicle move slower, it would still be good for Mumbai. “But for a market like Dallas, you’ll need something that articulates to really high speeds and very high cruise efficiency, because you’re going much further.”

But how many people in India would really be able to afford a flying taxi? Moore feels there’ll be quite a few.

“The price gap between ground transportation and air taxi is not nearly as big as people think. Essentially, one of these air vehicles is equivalent to about 20 cars on the ground because they are six times faster and can take 3-4 passengers on them. That’s how you achieve the price point — this is 20 times more throughput than a car on the ground,” Moore said.

Pilots are passé

Also, since these flying taxis will be all electric, he says the energy cost will be only 10 per cent of a traditional helicopter. But energy is not the biggest cost for operating these taxis.

“Maintenance and pilots are the two most expensive things. That’s why we are pushing towards future autonomous solutions so that we can take that pilot out. But we’ll not do that until we know the software is safe. FAA (the US Federal Aviation Administration) rightly wants to see 5-10 years of pilot operation with background autonomy, before we can turn over these vehicles to full autonomous control. That is very reasonable and very similar to what we are doing with autonomous driving on the ground.”

Recommended for you