Uber and NASA are joining forces to develop software which the company aims to use to manage “flying taxi” routes that could work like ride-hailing services it has popularized on the ground.
Wednesday, Uber announced that it was awarded the first formal services contract by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration addressing low-altitude airspace rather than outer space. NASA has been contracting aerospace manufacturers to develop rockets since the late 1950s.
Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden said Uber would begin testing proposed four-passenger, 200-miles-per-hour (322-km-per-hour) flying taxi services across Los Angeles in 2020, its second planned test market after Dallas/Fort Worth.
Holden described Uber’s latest air taxi plans at Web Summit, an internet conference in Lisbon, where he emphasized it was working to win approval from aviation regulators well ahead of introducing such services.
“There is a reality that Uber has grown up a lot as a company,” Holden said in an interview ahead of his speech. “We are now a major company on the world stage and you can’t do things the same way where you are a large-scale, global company that you can do when you are a small, scrappy startup.”
NASA said in a statement it had signed an agreement in January with Uber that allows the company to join a variety of industry partners working with NASA to develop a range of driverless air traffic management systems.
The agreement calls for Uber to be involved during phase 4 of this work, which is scheduled to begin in March 2019, NASA said.
Phase 1, completed in 2015, involved field tests and ongoing testing at a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration site for drones used in agriculture, fire-fighting and pipeline monitoring, NASA has said. Phase 2 in 2016 addressed long distance uses in sparsely populated regions, while Phase 3 in 2018 will test services over moderately populated areas, leading to Phase 4 testing in high-density urban areas in 2019.
Uber is looking to speed development of a new industry of electric, on-demand, urban air taxis, Holden said, which customers could order by smartphone in ways that parallel the ground-based taxi alternatives it has popularized while expanding into more than 600 cites since 2011.
Uber plans to introduce paid, intra-city flying taxi services in 2023 and is working with aviation regulators in the United States and Europe to gain the governmental approvals needed towards that end, Holden told Reuters.
“We are very much embracing the regulatory bodies and starting very early in discussions about this and getting everyone aligned with the vision,” he said of Uber’s plans to introduce what he called “ride-sharing in the sky”.