Uber tests helicopter ride sharing in New York

Uber will begin offering helicopter transport in New York City through a smartphone application on 9 July, starting a pilot effort the company hopes will help it develop its Elevate sky-taxi ecosystem.

The Uber Copter ride-sharing service will be available to top-tier Uber Rewards members travelling on weekday afternoons between John F Kennedy International airport and lower Manhattan near the Staten Island Ferry terminal.

Through the smartphone app customers will be able to book entire trips, starting with car transport to a helicopter pad, for $200 to $225.

“We’re using it… to test the integration of our product with multi-modal aspects of a trip,” says Kate Fraser, head of aviation policy at Uber Elevate. “We want to understand what it means to match people together and get all that coordinated.”

Helicopters on Uber Copter will be operated by HeliFlite, which has two pilots on each flight of its fleet of dual-engined helicopters. The Newark-based helicopter service’s fleet includes the Sikorsky S76, Bell 430 and 429 aircraft, according to HeliFlite.

A major selling point for electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOLs) is they would be quieter and more fuel efficient than helicopters, while relieving traffic congestion. Uber is not manufacturing aircraft but has promised flight demonstrations in 2020 of sky taxis built by airframers who intend to make them available through the Uber Air application around 2023, pending approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration.

Passengers in Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth and Melbourne, Australia will be the first cities where people can book a flight on an eVTOL through Uber’s app.

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Helicopters operated by HeliFlite available through Uber Copter will include the Sikorsky S76

Sikorsky

New Yorkers and social media commentators have voiced skepticism about the Uber Copter plan in the wake of a helicopter crash on 10 June, during which a pilot died when an Agusta A109E crashed on the roof of a skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan. During an interview on 11 June with a New York TV news outlet, New York City Council speaker Corey Johnson said of Uber Copter “is that really necessary?”

Uber declined to comment about the crash. It says HeliFlite will make safety-related decisions, and that according to its policy every passenger will watch a safety video before boarding and will be checked against the US Transportation Security Administration No Fly List.

EmbraerX chief executive Antonio Campello, whose company is developing an eVTOL for the Uber Elevate ecosystem, says Uber Copter is “a very positive movement” for the company to gather data to help plan a more customer-friendly and safe ecosystem for urban air mobility. Embraer also develops air traffic management software, a step he calls “the most important issue” to allow eVTOLs to fly in urban areas alongside helicopters and other aircraft.

To address public safety concerns about eVTOLs “they have to start out much safer than helicopters”, says Tine Tomazic, chief executive of Slovenia-based company Pipistrel, which is developing an electric aircraft for the Uber Air ecosystem.

“As you start filling up the skies you need to have vehicles that are orders of magnitude safer than helicopters,” Tomazic says. “It only takes one accident to poison the well or everyone.”


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Are air taxis on a ride to nowhere?

Don’t waste your money on a new car. Studies on the economics of taxi services built around autonomous electric-powered vertical take-off and landing aircraft – so-called eVTOLs – make compelling ­reading. Basically, cost per passenger mile looks like undercutting helicopter rides by an order of magnitude – and even makes ride-sharing in a car seem quite ­expensive. Uber is eager to get into eVTOLs, so either it sees the writing on the wall or actively wants to put its car driving “employees” out of business.

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Joby Aviation

The technology is not ready, but a lot of R&D muscle is chasing a potentially lucrative market. Forecasts of services from the early- to mid-2020s may be plausible. However, there are deal-breakers, like noise and airspace management technology. And it is just possible that eVTOL enthusiasts are conflating cost with price. The several hundred-dollar fare for a heli-taxi ride from, say, New York JFK to Manhattan is set not by underlying costs, but what the market will bear.

What really raises eyebrows is the promise that cheap eVTOL aircraft will solve our road congestion problems by moving traffic to the sky. Technology permitting, we may well see a few autonomous eVTOLs shuttling rich people around. But even without considering the inevitable collisions, the idea of flocks of them navigating free-flowing highways in the air sounds like a recipe for, well, traffic jams in the sky.


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