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Uber looks to the sky with flying taxis

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Uber looks to the sky with flying taxis

Uber Air in Melbourne

Ridesharing company Uber has unveiled plans to launch flying taxis using drones in Australia, although experts have raised safety and feasibility concerns while also suggesting it will do little to improve traffic congestion.

“We’re excited to announce that Melbourne has been selected as the first international launch city for Uber Air from 2020!” the company tweeted on its Australian Twitter profile.

In a media statement, Uber said that Melbourne will join Dallas and Los Angeles in the US as “pilot cities” for its trial of the airborne taxis, stating that testing will commence next year and commercial operations are due to begin from 2023.

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“Taking Uber’s tech to the sky, Uber Air aims to open up urban air mobility, and help alleviate transport congestion on the ground,” the company said.

“In the long term, the vision is for safe, quiet electric vehicles transporting tens of thousands of people across cities for the same price as an UberX trip over the same distance.”

Susan Anderson, Uber’s regional general manager for Australia, New Zealand and North Asia, announced the launch at Uber’s global Elevate summit in the US on Tuesday (11 June, local time).

“Since we entered the market in 2012, Australians have embraced Uber wholeheartedly. Today, over 3.8 million Aussies regularly use Uber as a reliable way to get from A to B, and governments across the country have recognised the important role ridesharing plays in the future of transport for our cities,” Ms Anderson said.

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“Australian governments have adopted a forward-looking approach to ridesharing and future transport technology. 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.”

She added: “The State Government of Victoria, Australia, has been highly supportive, and we look forward to partnering with them to progress into this first international trial for Uber Air in Melbourne.”

Uber said that Telstra, Macquarie, Melbourne Airport and Westfield owner Scentre Group have partnered with the company as part of the local trial.

Safety ‘the biggest hurdle’

Aerospace engineer and co-leader of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Team at RMIT University, Dr Matthew Marino, said that the issue of safety — and conveying this message to the travelling public — will be Uber’s greatest challenge in getting flying taxis to take off.

“The technology for autonomous aerial transport — also known as drones — already exists... Allowing a computer to fly an aircraft, rather than a human, is nothing new,” Dr Marino said.

“Technology has progressed so much that aerial autonomy is considered safe and reliable, arguably more so than driverless cars. While a driverless car would be faced with obstacles on the road like pedestrians on their mobile phones or other vehicles like trams and buses, aerial autonomous vehicles don’t have these obstructions.

“[However,] the biggest hurdle to drones carrying people is safety.”

According to Dr Marino, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has already been actively involved with various drone trials, “including Google’s Project Wing to deliver food, drinks and medication”.

“But we need to prove to people that this technology can be as safe as helicopters, which regularly fly in our cities. More research and development are needed in this area,” he said.

Greater choice, but no fix to transport woes

Another RMIT expert, Dr Chris De Gruyter, a research fellow at the university’s Centre for Urban Research, said that while Uber Air would offer an extra option for travellers, he countered Uber’s claims about congestion, saying air taxis would do nothing to resolve transport problems.

“Today’s announcement broadens the transport options that are available to Melburnians and transport choice is always welcome... But Uber Air isn’t going to help with managing our urban transport problems,” he said.

“These vehicles are very low capacity — similar to what a car could carry — while there are also questions about if these vehicles will create visual clutter in the sky and how environmentally friendly they are.

“Another risk is ‘empty running’, where there are no passengers, but the vehicle has to travel to pick people up from another location.”

Dr De Gruyter also questioned the value of city-based air travel, given that most taxi trips in Melbourne are short-distance hops.

“More than half of trips in metropolitan Melbourne — seven million a day out of 13 million — are less than 5km, according to latest available data. Only 13 per cent of trips are more than 20km and less than 2 per cent are more than 50km,” he said.

“Based on what travel survey data tells us, we might see skyports at key activity centres and employment hubs like the airport, Melbourne CBD and other key precincts like Clayton or Dandenong.”

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