Flying cars may be closer than we think as Uber has announced a contract from NASA to develop software to coordinate and monitor air traffic during the 2017 Web Summit in Lisbon.
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Uber said on Wednesday it was the first formal services contract by the U.S. National Aeronautical and Space Administration, NASA, covering low-altitude airspace rather than outer space. NASA has used such contracts to develop rockets since the late 1950s.
Signing the Space Act Agreement brings science fiction a step closer to reality, working with NASA to develop a range of driverless air traffic management systems.
The mobile taxi service now tests the laws of physics as it prepares to launch its army of flying taxis in Los Angeles, Dubai and Dallas-Fort Worth by 2023.
“Doing this safely and efficiently is going to require a foundational change in airspace management technologies. Combining Uber’s software engineering expertise with NASA’s decades of airspace experience to tackle this is a crucial step forward,” Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden said.
Traveling at a hurtling 322 kph, an 80-minute commute in rush hour commute will be reduced to four in their soaring four-passenger vehicles, Uber says. The construction of what is essentially a miniature helicopter or large drones has been conducted by two NASA veterans, Mark Moore and Tom Prevot, since early this year.
“We’ve announced five vehicle manufacturing partners that we’re working with and they’ll be building the vehicles. We will be helping them accelerate these vehicle programs,” Holden told Reuters.
“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.”
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Uber is looking to speed development of a new industry of electric, on-demand, urban air taxis, Holden said, which customers could order up via smartphone in ways that parallel the ground-based taxi alternatives it has popularized while expanding into more than 600 cities since 2011.
The ride sharing company is working with aviation regulators in the United States and Europe to win approvals toward that end, Holden told Reuters.
Uber has faced regulatory and legal battles around the world since it launched taxi-hailing services earlier this decade, including in London where it is appealing against a decision to strip it of its license due to safety concerns.
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.