First flight of Aurora's eVTOL sub-scale aircraft on April 20, 2017.
Cleveland, Ohio – This week at Uber's Elevate Summit in Dallas, Texas, officials from ride sharing service announced an agreement with Embraer to develop and deploy small, electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOLs) for short urban commutes in a concept called the Uber Elevate Network.
The preliminary partnership is a project generated by the Embraer Business Innovation Center, the new initiative based in Melbourne, Florida, with outposts in Silicon Valley, California, and Boston, Massachusetts, which was announced in March 2017 when the company revealed its intent to promote air transportation innovations.
“We firmly believe we need to explore several new business concepts that may impact air transportation in the future. This is a unique opportunity to complement the air transport knowledge of a visionary and revolutionary ground transport company. On exercising this partnership, we will be developing new technologies, new products, and new business models which could generate opportunities for Embraer in the future,” said Paulo Cesar de Souza e Silva, Embraer’s CEO, in a press release.
“We share the vision that the state of transportation in congested cities is ripe for innovative solutions, such as on-demand aviation. Embraer’s leadership roles in commercial and business aviation were attained through the introduction of disruptive aircraft and services, and we are confident that our DNA will add value to new concepts in urban transportation as well,” added Antonio Campello, Embraer’s vice president for corporate innovation.
Mark Moore, Uber’s director of engineering for aviation, explained that Embraer’s knowledge of certifying fly-by-wire aircraft, and its engineers’ confidence in similarly bringing fly-by-wire technology affordably to much smaller aircraft, is an essential ingredient for success.
Enter Aurora Flight Sciences
At the same summit, Uber also selected Aurora Flight Sciences as a partner to develop eVTOL aircraft for its Uber Elevate Network. Aurora’s eVTOL concept is derived from its XV-24A X-plane program currently underway for the U.S. Department of Defense and other autonomous aircraft the company has developed.
Aurora has adapted and combined the autonomous flight guidance system from its Centaur optionally-piloted aircraft, the perception and collision avoidance system from the AACUS program, and the battery electric propulsion system from the XV-24A demonstrator to create the eVTOL design.
With the successful first test flight of a sub-scale aircraft just days before, on April 20, 2017, Aurora’s announced goal is to deliver 50 aircraft [presumably full-size] for testing by 2020.
"The Uber Elevate mission is all about low noise, high reliability, and low cost," said Aurora CEO John Langford in his company’s announcement. "By drawing on our nearly 30 years of successful autonomy and robotic programs, Aurora is well positioned to deliver on this urban solution. We have already built and flown the first proof-of-concept aircraft and we're excited to partner with Uber in accelerating the eVTOL initiative."
The partnership agreement provides the basis for a system of urban transportation solutions that will enable users of the Uber Elevate Network to request an Aurora eVTOL aircraft via Uber's computer or mobile software applications.
Headquartered in Manassas, Virginia, Aurora operates production plants in Bridgeport, West Virginia and Columbus, Mississippi; has research and development centers in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Dayton, Ohio; and Mountain View, California; and a European office, Aurora Swiss Aerospace, located in Luzern, Switzerland.
"Uber is taking a big step forward toward making the world's first VTOL network a reality and our partnership with Aurora Flight Sciences will help get us off the ground," Moore noted. "The Elevate VTOL network will help improve urban mobility around the world and transform the way we travel."
Expect to wait
The development of autonomous, passenger-carrying vehicles for surface road travel is well underway, but still years away from acceptance despite demonstration runs by Uber and others. Dreams of personal, on-demand-flight have existed from humans’ first notions of flight (Daedalus’ and Icarus’ waxed feather wings), went hand-in-hand with 20th century developments in aviation (autogyros, flying cars), and have followed into the 21st century (multi-rotor, human-carrying drones). While autonomy has the potential to make manned and unmanned transport – including flight – safer and more efficient, we are years (and maybe decades) away from integrating autonomous aircraft safely into the U.S. national air space and weaving them through difficult cityscapes – even if the vehicles themselves can be shown to fly reliably and the software controlling them fail-safe in an unchallenged environment. What Uber is proposing is system integration far more complex than landing a man on the moon. And we still don’t have an app for that yet.