Uber has set a lofty goal: Build and test electric flying taxis by 2020.
But the task is immense, carrying plenty of obstacles and leaving the ride-hailing company in need of help to realize the project.
One of those hurdles -- limiting the noise level of the air taxis -- has led Uber to the University of Texas, and more specifically, to a handful of researchers and engineers at the university and within the U.S. Army Research Laboratory at UT.
On Thursday morning, university officials and Uber announced that the research lab and UT will work together to design new rotors for Uber’s air taxi program.
The collaborative effort, slated to last roughly 18 months, will be one of the most crucial projects in making Uber’s flying dreams a reality. It is scheduled to run just long enough for Uber to meet its two-year timeframe for testing the flying taxi program in Dallas, Los Angeles and a yet-to-be-determined international city.
It will also be one of the Army lab’s first major projects at UT since launching a space in Austin in 2016.
"When this got started at Uber, there was a recognition that it was an enormous (industry) problem overall, and that no one entity, including Uber, had the expertise to do all of it,” Rob McDonald, head of vehicle engineering at Uber Elevate, said of building new rotor technology. "The way we see it is that we are creating an entire new industry, and it's going to be big enough for a lot of people to have a significant role. So rather than do it ourselves, we would rather count on the expertise of others."
Uber is among several companies trying to build air taxis. Others include German startup Volocopter and Ehang, a passenger drone being worked on by a Chinese tech company.
Army lab officials first met Uber representatives at a conference hosted by the Vertical Flight Society in January. Both parties began to discuss around then how they could benefit each other.
In addition to UT and the research lab, Uber is relying on a host of partners to launch the flying taxi project, including Aurora Flight Sciences, Pipistrel Aircraft and Bell.
At UT, Army lab officials said collaborating with a high-tech company like Uber would help stretch resources to develop the rotors, which the Army plans to also integrate into their own future air vehicles.
But the partnership also represents an undertaking by the U.S. military to begin working closely with the private tech sector.
This month, the Army plans to open its Futures Command facility in Austin, an operation that will develop new technologies for the Army alongside civilian workers at startups and UT.
The Army lab at UT will run under the Futures Command once it is opened.
“The question that is often asked is ‘are we at the Army Research Lab sure that we are at the cutting edge? Are we engaging the partners in the industry that are really pushing the envelope in the state of technology?’” said Jaret Riddick, director of the research lab’s vehicle tech unit. “In this area of urban air mobility, Uber is one of the (leaders).”
At the center of Uber’s project is making the noise levels of the aircrafts suitable for civilian use. In a white paper highlighting goals for its air taxis, Uber said the vehicles should be “one-half as loud as a medium-sized truck passing a house.”
In order to make that happen, researchers plan to design stacked rotors that travel in the same direction, an evolving concept that they say would decrease noise.
Researchers at UT have already developed a plan for their 18-month project. Now it’s a matter of engineering the rotors, said Jayant Sirohi, a UT engineering professor who is leading the Uber project and whose research has focused on aircraft technology.
“We’re trying to improve the knowledge base of the community while at the same time solving a problem for the industry,” Sirohi said.
If Uber meets its timeline, the company plans to begin demonstration flights in 2020 and commercial flights in 2023, although it faces regulatory hurdles and other logistical obstacles.
Uber also has to earn the trust of potential customers, a task made more challenging after setbacks the company has experienced with other initiatives. In March, for example, an autonomous car operated by Uber struck and killed a woman on a street in Tempe, Ariz., leading Uber to temporarily suspend the program.
Despite any uncertainty, however, McDonald said Uber will push forward on projects it believes are necessary for the innovation of transportation.
Eventually, Uber envisions all of its systems being connected through its phone app.
On a video advertisement for its Uber air taxi website, the company lays out the future it wants:
A customer plans out and books their commute through the service’s app.
They walk to an Uber air taxi terminal, scan their electronic ticket and step into an air taxi stationed on the building's roof.
The air taxi transports the passenger to another terminal closest to their final destination.
An autonomous Uber-operated car awaits the customer outside of the terminal and drives them home.
“The technology exists. It’s not science fiction. It’s not just a pipe dream,” McDonald said. “But it’s going to take building trust over time and building experience over time.
“It’s such a compelling experience that people will want to experience it.”