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Uber Is Researching a New Vertical-Takeoff Ride Offering That Flies You Around (recode.net) 135

If Uber's recently launched self-driving cars surprised you, wait for the company's "flying" vehicles. Speaking with Recode, Uber's head of products said the company is research small planes that can vertically take off and land, so that they can be used for short-haul flights in cities. From the report:The technology is called VTOL -- which stands for vertical takeoff and landing. Simply put, VTOL is an aircraft that can hover, take off and land vertically, which would also describe a helicopter. But, unlike the typical helicopter, these planes have multiple rotors, could have fixed wings and perhaps eventually would use batteries and be more silent. In time, like cars, such aircraft would be autonomous. Jeff Holden said that he has been researching the area, "so we can someday offer our customers as many options as possible to move around." He added that "doing it in a three-dimensional way is an obvious thing to look at."
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Uber Is Researching a New Vertical-Takeoff Ride Offering That Flies You Around

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  • by stealth_finger ( 1809752 ) on Monday September 26, 2016 @10:09AM (#52962187)
    So, uber is going to be the one to bring us the flying car? I doubt it but good luck to them.
    • Didn't they already try this in the US but got shot down by the FAA
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      ...And no mention of Moller?

      Paul Moller is a first-class, well-credentialed, Fruitcake, with blarney so impressive, that even he believes in it. Very early on, a Physicist that I knew was so enthusiastically taken in, he put $30K into the venture, and he soberly ended up leading one of the later lawsuits.

      The funny thing is, Moller is right; the Physics behind what he is still doing is valid. But his Engineering is off, way off. Paul Moller is an eternal optimi

      • by k6mfw ( 1182893 )
        I was thinking the same. Moller Corp. did make some ducted fan UAVs, also mufflers from what I read had excellent sound suppression but minimal blockage (I think the muffler sales provided some money along with investors). Paul Moller, also UC Davis staff, published a paper showing the mathematics of why the Avro "flying saucer" car would never get out of ground effect. I found it in microfiche in 1980s and printed a hardcopy. I cannot find it and have search AIAA with no success. In this paper the math was
      • Paul Moller is a well-known scammer who peddles fake flying car prototypes every few years to suck up funds from the gullible.

    • Finally! Cars taking off of the ground and zipping away in every direction... Though, a lot of people are going to die....
  • So, Blade Runner, anyone?
  • by fl_litig8r ( 904972 ) on Monday September 26, 2016 @10:18AM (#52962261)
    There's a reason that both the Harrier and Osprey are called the Widowmaker. I doubt a commercial VTOL Uber plane will be a reality in my lifetime due to liability concerns. This is the kind of research that is always "5-10 years from application", like all the miracle cancer cures I've read about over the years -- which I then never heard about again. Just say "20-50 years away at best" and assume Uber won't be around any more when it happens. What a joke of a story.
    • I'm aware of issues with the Osprey, but I'm not so sure you can tar the Harrier with the same brush. Yes. that aircraft has been responsible for a number of deaths, but the casualties weren't in the Harriers - they were in the other (e.g. Argentine) planes that the Harriers were shooting at.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        The Osprey is perfectly safe these days. The testing period had a high number of fatal crashes, but the expensive lessons learned were put to good use and as a result Its the safest rotocraft in the marine corp fleet.

    • by frnic ( 98517 ) on Monday September 26, 2016 @11:05AM (#52962653)

      I supposed personal computers will never work out because, who can afford to power all those vacuum tubes.

      • We have perfectly good helicopters today, but you don't want one on your street. Just a few basic physical problems that won't be solved without antigravity.

      • Seriously, slashdot mods, this is not insightful. Glib comparisons to completely unrelated tech at a different stage of development is utterly meaningless.

        If you were comparing predictions in the 1910s about planes to ones in 1950s about computers, perhaps you'd be on to something. But aircraft have had over 100 years of development time now and while there are still advances to be made, they're all going to be relatively slow and incremental because the technology is mature.

        The problem is you can't escape

    • Not all multi-rotors are plagued with the Osprey's woes.

      An Uber multi-rotor would still need designated landing zones, guaranteed to be clear from people that can get hurt by a landing chop-o-matic. Especially so given its limited range and hover time.

      It would be noisy as hell - very few neighbors would put up with a new Uber LZ next door, limiting it to mostly already designated heliports - not exactly numerous or conveniently located.

      It's either going to be limited to flight in very favorable conditions,

    • Uber can try to shift liability to the end user

    • by Anonymous Coward

      While I agree that consume VTOL is unlikely in the foreseeable future, I have two points

      1. The Harrier worked fine, it was not particularly more dangerous for its pilot than other aircraft in those roles.

      2. We have a bunch of working miracle cancer cures. The trick to cancer is that it's a type of thing, not a thing. A "cancer cure" doesn't cure all cancer, any more than a "house fire" burns down all houses.

      I've actually had a very old fashioned cancer cure. I had Hodgkins Disease which is a cancer of the l

    • It's an unavoidable part of the learning process. When you build a machine that does something that's never been done before, there are always going to be unforeseen problems. That is how you learn that these problems exist and ways to overcome them. The scaredy-cats who would keep us mired in the stone age will rant about the risks and the dangers. But people with long-term vision will pull us along the path of technological advancement. The V-22 Osprey's safety record [helis.com] is actually better than the HH-5 [helis.com]
    • by nnull ( 1148259 )
      Uber sure is doing a lot of 'research'! Lets see how many investors they pull in on this one.
      • Precisely. This is nothing but hype to drive media coverage, investor interest and 'self-submitted' slashvertisement. Move along, nothing to see here.
    • There's a reason that both the Harrier and Osprey are called the Widowmaker.

      I've heard that about the Osprey, but not the Harrier.

      I doubt a commercial VTOL Uber plane will be a reality in my lifetime due to liability concerns.

      Why not? People can use helicopters in cities, and they're dangerous as heck.

  • Ubers cars are NOT self-driving. In fact, they all have TWO DRIVERS in them. I doubt we will see true self-driving cars (with no Google/Uber engineers behind the wheel in case something goes wrong) in 40 years.
  • LMFTFY (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jawnn ( 445279 ) on Monday September 26, 2016 @10:22AM (#52962295)
    Uber is manipulating the media for free publicity by hinting at flying cars.

    There is so much in the way of what Uber is suggesting that it is absurd for them to be making public statements about it. First of all... Uber. You know, the ride sharing service that let's people make a few extra bucks by giving rides in their fifteen-year old Chevy. I wonder which will come first, flying Uber cars or a town on Mars named Muskville.

    • Just as soon as the Moller Skycar [wikipedia.org] is ready. It'll be real soon now, right? He's only been working on it for about 50 years.

      • by bigpat ( 158134 )

        Just as soon as the Moller Skycar [wikipedia.org] is ready. It'll be real soon now, right? He's only been working on it for about 50 years.

        Moller ran up against the problem of not wanting to get test pilots killed, and the FAA not wanting to get test pilots killed... but strap in a lightweight laptop that can autonomously stabilize the vehicle during testing while you have a pilot on the ground directing it where to go and you should be able to make faster progress than Moller ever could with periodic tethered flights from a crane and a human test pilot.

        • Muller has had computers he could fly since 1980.
          • by bigpat ( 158134 )

            Muller has had computers he could fly since 1980.

            Even the low powered mobile/embedded computers we had from ten years ago were not really fast enough to incorporate a lot of sensor data and perform extensive autonomous functions. We aren't talking about the small rack of computers you could put on a jumbo jet, or even in a car, or the small embedded computers you would put on a missile that could incorporate one sensor or two with simple instructions. What we have now is a capability to have small embedded or low power computers that can have millions of

  • sustained profit: "this system will be the revolutionary way by which people commute every day. it is a disruptive transportation technology that will fuel the 21st century"
    incident of injury or death: "we are not, not have we ever been, a VTOL company. We're merely a humble service provider."
  • Maybe Uber should partner with Moller. That should put them out of business in no time. Even in the age of "drones" and "autonomous cars", Moller still hasn't been able to put together a demonstration model that works for more than a few minutes. And 5 minutes of flight time doesn't really get you anywhere.

    • Moller still hasn't been able to put together a demonstration model

      Why in the bloody 'ell would he want to do that? Working vehicles are for one market; fantasies are for another. He's built a fifty year career on this one, and never had to spend a nickel on anything but hype.

      Moller knows exactly what he's doing.

  • There are already asshole bikers making a huge amount of noise in the neighbourhood, I'm pretty sure this is even more noisy due to the high RPMs necessary. Thanks but no thanks.
  • by prefec2 ( 875483 ) on Monday September 26, 2016 @10:51AM (#52962529)

    Like many other "tech" companies, Uber tries to show that they are innovative. However, they are not. Lets illustrate that with flying cars. The topic of flying objects which are heavier than air has been discussed lengthly in engineering. Therefore, it is relatively good understood. First, you need some force to counteract gravity (or disable gravity) and then you need additional forces to move around. In airplanes, this is done with wing which transform kinetic energy of the moving plane in lift. Therefore, either an engine is required to resupply the system with new kinetic energy or you require thermal lift. For vertical lifting, we developed rockets and helicopters which provide a counterforce + some extra to move an object up. All these technologies already exist. Yet they cannot be used to create a flying car which is cheap enough to make is an alternative to a car. Just compare the price and fuel consumption of a small helicopter and a car to see that this is not economical realizable for most people. Therefore, it is not an engineering problem, but a problem of theoretical physics to come up with a way to cancel out gravity. Unfortunately, Uber is not investing in that.

    Second, average humans are not capable of flying devices. That is why pilots require a lot of training. Lets assume computer scientists and robot developers are able to create an autonomous flying machine, which is an enormous engineering task, as we are barely able to get it done with cars. Some might say, yes but we have autonomous flying drones and autopilot. The first fail often and military drones need supervision. Autopilots are able to steer a system through the air until something happens which requires human interaction. Also current flight is heavily regulated and controlled by pilots and controllers on the ground. In a "Fifth Element"-like scenario, thousands of cars are flying around. Therefore, you need additional rules, as they are closer together. Just like nowadays on the ground. An autonomous flying machine would have to mange all these rules and understand all other moving objects together which is much more complicated than 2D.

    Therefore, such effort is futile, which let me conclude this is just a marketing scam used to show Uber is so great company. While the truth is, they are just a company with a lot of money form venture capitalists which provides an app and enterprise software behind it. Thus, they are just a business model not an engineering company and definitely not a company capable to come up with new physics.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Seems to me like Lyft is really missing out on an easy marketing campaign here.

    • Well Über is German for "Above/Over", so works pretty well for flying cars too. I wonder if the flying car ubers will be known as "Über ubers".

  • by pz ( 113803 ) on Monday September 26, 2016 @10:56AM (#52962585) Journal

    More silent? How can they be more silent? Silent means they make no noise.

    That said, VTOL aircraft are far, far from quiet. Even if you made them battery powered (good luck with that, as the power densities required are really pretty serious) to eliminate most of the power plant noise, they would still be damned loud due to the massive amount of air that needs to be thrust downward in order to move the craft upward. How much air? Equivalent to the weight of the craft. All the time. More, if you want to move up. Given that air is substantially less dense that most flying crafts, this means heaploads of noise. No matter how you cut it, aircraft are loud, close up, as long as you are depending on displacing air to provide thrust.

    • Yeah, I suspect their VTOL vehicles are based on up-sized quadrocopter drones, which might make sense for safety, environment, and cost. They won't be as loud as a helicopter, but they will be far louder than your handheld drone (which are far from silent) due to size. Probably will be quieter than the mutilated Mustang my neighbor drives though and not the loudest vehicle around.

      • by pz ( 113803 )

        Why do you think they won't be as loud as a helicopter? Fewer smaller rotors are louder than a single larger rotor pushing the same amount of air. The amount of weight is going to be approximately the same (or are these air taxis relying on a technological breakthrough that the helicopter industry hasn't yet found?), so the amount of lift required is going to be the same, thus the amount of displaced air per unit time will be the same. Many smaller rotors will need to spin faster and be louder than a sin

  • Finally, 2017 is the long awaited Year of Linux on the .... oh, sorry, I mean Year of the Flying Cars! Well, to be fair, I guess we have Linux on the phones sitting on many of our desks, and we do have "drones" that could carry plastic army men, ...so... maybe it's just a issue of scale.
  • Autonomous passenger aircraft has been a possibility for a *very* long time, but didn't take off (*cough*) for a few reasons. Firstly, it's only been recently that such technology could be integrated at a small enough level as to keep the weigh (and, hence, cost) low. Secondly, people like the fact that there's a human in control, even when that control is limited (as is that case with autopilot systems in airliners). Finally, the added complexity of VTOL aircraft compared to fixed wing makes such an end
  • There's already infrastructure in place for VTOL aircraft in cities: Helipads on rooftops. Hospitals have them.

    Cost isn't (as much of) an issue for Uber. They don't do sales, they do for-hire.

    If someone could plug into the existing Uber app and provide another selection to the right for "VTOL", you think they wouldn't do brisk business in New York? Hell, shuttle service from downtown to the airports alone would more than pay for it.

    • by pz ( 113803 )

      Through a number of phases of the modern age, different airlines have attempted to offer air-taxi services from the three main airports around NYC to Manhattan. The economics would seem to make sense at first blush. The relative distances, potential market demand and locations make sense. And, yet none of the big airlines still offer these ad-ons to their mainline service, while, at the same time, they have offered significant incentives to attract big-money customers. The natural conclusion is that the

      • I don't feel like loading their wix-laden website, but there's a company called gotham air that planned to offer $99 air taxi service from manhattan to the airport. No idea if that ever materialized, or if it (dun dun dun) crashed and burned.

      • Helicopters are a general-purpose aircraft. If you only needed 50 mile range you could probably make a purpose-built hybrid-powered shuttle with better economics than a chopper. And the generation growing up today will be used to the idea of drone quads. This could be a thing in my lifetime ... though I won't be investing in it just yet.

      • by k6mfw ( 1182893 )

        three main airports around NYC to Manhattan.

        I'm thinking of back in the days they had civilian Chinook helicopters providing service to and from the Pan Am building, at least what I remember seeing in the 1960s Clint Eastwood movie "Coogan's Bluff." I always thought that would be cool to take off and land on top of that building. Maybe it just doesn't financially work out (Pan Am no longer exists, and I've not seen that model of helicopter used for passenger service). I was in NYC in 1990s, landed at JFK, got on shuttle bus to downtown hotel and acc

  • This is one of those things that will remain a rich people toy at best for the foreseeable future simply due to the amount of energy required. See also: Civilian supersonic flight, space tourism.

  • The insurance liability for something like this would be astronomical. We already have roads and understand and accept the risks associated with them. With this you have the risk of running into buildings, trees, power lines, etc. Roads are at least well-defined travel ways, the sky not so much. Then you have the risks of falling out of the sky & damaging things below - and the occupants are pretty well dead, so add a few million for them.

    Even if fuel & vehicle costs were negligible I could easily s

  • Too much money... (Score:3, Informative)

    by skaralic ( 676433 ) on Monday September 26, 2016 @12:32PM (#52963203)
    Uber is trying desperately to use up all that money they were given based on their (relatively simple) app. An app that they can't even make profitable. Apparently they lost around $1.2B in the first half of the year [bloomberg.com].

    They have no clue what they're doing and this pie-in-the-sky stuff is just a bullshit distraction before the money runs out.

    I don't know why companies aren't happy to just perfect and run an existing product profitably instead of looking for endless and everlasting growth? It's not sustainable. After all, why shouldn't they when there are investors willing to sign $1.5B cheques for a fucking app.
    • I'm glad they're employing smart people on pie in the sky stuff instead of making a profit. They'd eventually fail anyway, might as well do something interesting first.

      • I'm glad they're employing smart people on pie in the sky stuff instead of making a profit. They'd eventually fail anyway, might as well do something interesting first.

        I guess that's the silver lining. Maybe we'll see a bunch of new startups sprout up out of that Uber experience.

      • by mjwx ( 966435 )

        I'm glad they're employing smart people on pie in the sky stuff instead of making a profit. They'd eventually fail anyway, might as well do something interesting first.

        Like most Ponzi schemes, this is about diverting as many liquid assets as they can into the places where they can only be touched by the owners rather than trying to turn a profit.

        Uber was never meant to be a success, it was meant to make its owners rich from other people's money.

    • Uber is trying desperately to use up all that money they were given based on their (relatively simple) app. An app that they can't even make profitable. Apparently they lost around $1.2B in the first half of the year.

      If they don't use it up, there's a risk they might eventually be asked to give it back.

  • An automated flying vehicle will require much more communication with the ground/other flying objects than an automated car.

    The more communication a vehicle has to make, the more there is opportunity for hacking. I hope security is really tight on these things so we don't see them all hacked by terrorists to fly into the freedom tower... or even by pranksters sending everyone to Cleveland.

    / honey, I swear I didn't instruct my uber to send me to the strip club, a prankster hacked my drone.

  • 'Self-driving cars' are not even ready for 'prime time' yet, and people have been trying to develop flying cars for literally decades, and now Uber is already trying to sell us the idea as part of their dubious ride-sharing service? Does the driver have lasers on his head, too? Or is it going to be a self-driving flying VTOL car? Is Uber trying to become the first Darwin Award recipient in history (at the cost of the lives of their passengers)?

    Someone please put Uber (and Lyft, and whoever else) out of bus
    • I'm not sure if it will be harder or easier to make a self-driving drone.

      You have an extra dimension that needs to be scanned for threats, but there are no traffic lights, much fewer human pilots (especially lower altitude), no pedestrians, no traffic signs, no streets to follow.

      Overall there are a lot fewer rules that need to be considered than there are for cars. Consequences for getting things wrong are more dire- but it might be more practical to pull off than a self-driving car... at least until they

  • I for one wouldn't get into a self-driving uber let alone a self-flying one.

  • by TheSync ( 5291 )

    Perhaps something like the Ehang 184 [theverge.com] all electric autonomous quadcopter scaled up from a drone so that it's large enough to carry a single passenger up to 10 miles or roughly 23 minutes of flight. I bet this meets the needs of many Uber trips!

  • VTOL pretty much means "helicopters" (we discount military jets with vectored engines). And helicopter manufacturers are stuck in 70-s.

    And you can't really make a traditional helicopter cheaper, you have lots of expensive parts because a failure of any of them will cause lithobraking followed by rapid unplanned disassembly. And they can't experiment with multi-rotor systems because the weight of mechanical transmission is prohibitive.

    Fortunately, we now have powerful batteries and electric motors. Creat
  • Maybe they should instead research how they can make revenue exceed expenses, since Uber is pissing money away [bloomberg.com] at a phenomenal rate.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    This should work out well for them. The FAA has a great sense of humor, and are well known for letting little things slide. I'm sure they'll have no problem with unpiloted human carrying drones from a company with a great history of regulatory compliance operating in restricted airspaces for commercial purposes.

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