12 June 2019
Uber’s plan to trial an aerial taxi service in Melbourne is technologically feasible but needs to be well regulated to avoid “absolute chaos”, according to a civil engineering expert.
- The service would use a network of small and electric aircraft using vertical take-off and landing technology (VTOL)
- A 2016 paper proposed using car park roofs and existing helipads to run the service
- The Civil Aviation Safety Authority said there were a long list of hurdles to be cleared by Uber
The global ridesharing giant’s Uber Air pilot — which will also run in the US cities of Dallas and Los Angeles — aims to connect transport hubs like airports to central city sites.
The rideshare company said test flights were due to start from 2020 and plans were for commercial operations to begin from 2023.
University of Queensland research fellow Jake Whitehead said from a technological perspective, the timeline was achievable.
“We are very close to the point that battery technologies can support these kinds of smaller vehicles … What will be the challenge is the regulation,” Dr Whitehead said.
“I’d hate to see us be in a position where it’s a repeat of Uber ground vehicles where governments aren’t adequately prepared for this technology and aren’t proactively working with these companies to look at how to make sure that we can benefit from this technology and not end up in a situation where it’s absolute chaos.”
Dr Whitehead said Uber’s “extremely aggressive” approach to entering new markets in the past should prompt governments to think carefully about what regulations are needed to preserve liveability.
“The reality is there are some downsides to this technology if it’s a free-for-all and there are no rules in place.”
Uber flags expansion to other Australian cities
The announcement was made at Uber’s Elevate summit in Washington after sealing the deal with Melbourne Airport and companies Macquarie Capital, Scentre Group and Telstra.
“Australian governments have adopted a forward-looking approach to ridesharing and future transport technology,” said Susan Anderson, regional general manager for Uber in Australia, New Zealand and North Asia.
“This, coupled with Melbourne’s unique demographic and geospatial factors, and culture of innovation and technology, makes Melbourne the perfect third launch city for Uber Air.
“We will see other Australian cities following soon after.”
The rideshare company has been a disruptor to traditional taxi services in Australia and is currently facing a class action lawsuit from taxi drivers.
Some Australian Uber drivers have protested over their pay and conditions, most recently joining a global protest in May.
Ms Anderson said Victoria’s state government had been “highly supportive” of the plans for the trial.
“Melbourne is one of the world’s most liveable cities and importantly it’s innovations like this that demonstrate that we’re at the leading edge of new technologies,” Treasurer Tim Pallas told the ABC.
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) told ABC Radio Melbourne the authority would work with the company to ensure the service was safe before it started operating.
CASA spokesman Peter Gibson said the list of challenges for Uber was a long one:
- The company would have to get a safety certification for the new battery-operated aircraft — which does not exist yet
- The airspace they would use would have to be managed by authorities
- The people operating the aircraft would need specialised training
- Infrastructure for the mini-airports does not yet exist
The regional general manager of Uber Eats, Jodie Auster, conceded the days of pilotless flight were a long way off.
“There’s a lot of work to do. An urban ridesharing network in the sky does not happen overnight. It’s going to take some time,” she said.
Trial to move away from ‘noisy, inefficient’ helicopters
A 2016 Uber Elevate paper described a network of small and electric aircraft that can take off and land vertically known as VTOL (vertical take-off and landing).
It proposed using sites like car parks roofs and existing helipads to run the service.
“The closest equivalent technology in use today is the helicopter,” the paper said.
“But helicopters are too noisy, inefficient, polluting and expensive for mass-scale use.”
VTOLs would make use of “autonomy technology” to reduce the risk of operator error.
Uber is certainly not the only company racing to take over the skies.
Airbus is trialling its own air taxi service using a prototype electric aircraft, similar to a drone, which can take off and land vertically.
German company Volocopter is set to test its own drone-based vehicles in Singapore later this year.
Air New Zealand has also said it is examining an autonomous electric air taxi service.
It would not be the first time Uber has offered an air service in Melbourne.
Uber Chopper subsidised $1,000 one-way helicopter flights from Batman Park to Flemington Racecourse during last year’s Melbourne Cup Carnival.
The local announcement coincides with Uber’s Elevate summit in Washington DC.