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Want to beat traffic blues? Uber might soon fly you to your destination

Sahil Bhalla | Updated on: 26 September 2016, 17:06 IST

From its own mapping system to beat Google Maps to self-driving cabs, Uber has come a long way in recent times. Uber's plans are to take over the world's public transport one city at a time.

But, Uber doesn't just see the simple taxi as the only tool of their global takeover.

Speaking to Kara Swisher of Recode at the Nantucket Conference, Uber products head Jeff Holden confirmed that it is looking at new forms of transportation - including flying options.


"Short-haul flying in cities" is how Swisher describes the company's latest move. The company is researching small planes that can vertically take off and then subsequently land. The technology behind this is vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL). VTOL is an aircraft in its simplest terms: hover, take off and land vertically, which would also describe a helicopter.

It is, however, in no way a helicopter. "These planes have multiple rotors, could have fixed wings and perhaps eventually would use batteries and be more silent". Given Uber's focus on autonomous transport, we're betting on them being self-flying in the near future as well.

The time frame you may ask? Within a decade. It's an optimistic prediction, sure, considering we don't have any flying cars yet, but,given the exponential development of technology, it's well within the realms of what is possible.

More recently, Holden - who has work experience with Google and Amazon - has been involved in the rollout of self-driving Uber cars in Pittsburgh, which at the moment, have been successfully trialled. The moment CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick mentioned this technology, the team got behind it and ramped up the development.

"While Uber's plans are in their infancy, the idea of airports everywhere - Holden talked about landing on top of buildings in cities, reducing commuting time and congestion dramatically - is compelling. Holden said he imagined that many people would use it together, like a way cooler UberPool. Uber has offered helicopter services before, but it was largely a marketing effort, he said."

Ideally, Uber would be waiting for these to be smaller in size, and not take up too much space while taking-off, in air and landing.

The future is flight

VTOL isn't something that is commercial right now. It's been limited to the military - specifically the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA has its VTOL Experimental Plane (VTOL X-Plane).

Another company working towards these kind of 'flying cars' is Airbus, the company that makes a lot of the planes you use to fly from place to place. Airbus' Silicon Valley arm, A3, has been conducting research towards developing a plane that can essentially serve as an air taxi. It is being envisioned as one that can be used for both people and cargo. Airbus has mentioned a timeline of end of 2017 to get the prototype in the air.

Elon Musk, whose company is the leading manufacturer electric cars, has also talked about his idea for a VTOL aircraft back in February. Musk has drawn up a concept plan for an electric plane.

One other company doing similar things is a Chinese company that goes by the name of Ehang. Earlier in the year, the company unveiled the 184. 184 is an "autonomous quadcopter drone designed to carry a single passenger, with a battery life of 23 minutes". It will cost $300,000 when launched this year (ambitious, once again).

For Uber though, the sky is quite literally, the limit. At least for now, they aren't replicating Elon Musk and trying to conquer Mars. The only problem Uber, Airbus and other companies may have is convincing consumers about this 'radical idea'. After all, just look at all the controversies surrounding drones these days.

"It could change cities and how we work and live," Holden said. And that's just the sort of thinking that could make Uber Air a reality.

First published: 26 September 2016, 17:06 IST
Sahil Bhalla @IMSahilBhalla

Sahil is a correspondent at Catch. A gadget freak, he loves offering free tech support to family and friends. He studied at Sarah Lawrence College, New York and worked previously for Scroll. He selectively boycotts fast food chains, worries about Arsenal, and travels whenever and wherever he can. Sahil is an unapologetic foodie and a film aficionado.