Monday, February 13, 2017

Look, up in the sky! It’s bird. It’s a plane. It’s a flying Uber!

One of my favorite books as a kid was The Flying Sandbox.flying sandbox Because what kid wouldn’t want to fly around their neighborhood in a sandbox? I sure did, even though, given that our sandbox was four boards my father had knocked together – and painted a really curious color of pinky-purple: did the hardware store give him the paint, or was it leftover from one my grandmother’s paint-the-furniture adventures?  Since there was no bottom to our sandbox, just a frame with sand in it, it would have been a good trick to fly in it. Of course, our sandbox did have seats in every corner, so we could have hung onto those. Wheee…..

And then I grew up, and didn’t give much thought to stuff like flying around in a sandbox, or in any other personal, or semi-personal, flying device.

But the tech companies, bless ‘em, are apparently thinking about it for me.

Google’s Larry Page has financed two startups – Zee Aero and Kitty Hawk – that are aimed a building flying cars. And Uber has decided that they also want to slip the surly bonds of earth – or at least achieve some hovering level above ground. They’ve gone and hired a former NASA engineer who’s done research on vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), i.e., flying cars. At Uber Technologies,

[Mark] Moore is taking on a new role as director of engineering for aviation at the ride-hailing company, working on a flying care initiative known as Uber Elevate. “I can’t think of another company in a stronger position to be the leader for this new ecosystem and make the urban electric VTOL market real,” he says. (Source: Bloomberg)

Personally, I’d like to see Uber focused on getting my sister Kath’s address straight, so getting an Uber pickup there isn’t a big fandango, but, hey, it’s Uber’s money, and if they’d prefer to come up with a flying car rather than come up with a way to find my sister’s house, that’s their lookout.

Uber is still in the exploratory stages. For now, they’re focused on problems the VTOL industry is facing: “like noise pollution, vehicle efficiency and limited battery life.”

If I were going to pick one, I’d put my focus on the limited battery life challenge. No, I’m not looking forward to the noise pollution that will come with flying cars (not to mention all those delivery drones), and, sure, vehicle efficiency is a nice to have. But I really don’t want to be out there taking my 10K Fitbit steps when an Uber Elevate’s battery goes end-of-life.

Nikhil Goel, Uber’s head of product for advanced programs, says the company wants to organize the industry to help spur development of flying cars. “Uber continues to see its role as an accelerant-catalyst to the entire ecosystem, and we are excited to have Mark joining us to work with manufacturers and stakeholders as we continue to explore the use case described in our whitepaper,” Goel wrote in an e-mailed statement.

Emphasis mine, and I really only put this para in here because it would be a great statement to have on hand if one were playing business buzzword bingo. Catalyst. Ecosystem. Stakeholders. Well played, Nikhil Goel! (As an aside, I googled Nikhil and found that he is a graduate of Virgil Grissom High School, named for the unfortunate astronaut Gus Grissom who lost his first space capsule – he got out, but the capsule sunk – and who lost his life when the command module he was in caught fire while on the launch pad. So, looks like an apt job for Mr. Goel. With luck not a precursor of ill luck.)

Uber’s vision is a seductive one, particularly for sci-fi fans. The ride-hailing company envisions people taking conventional Ubers from their homes to nearby “vertiports” that dot residential neighborhoods. Then they would zoom up into the air and across town to the vertiport closest to their offices. (“We don’t need stinking bridges!” says Moore.) These air taxis will only need ranges of between 50 to 100 miles, and Moore thinks that they can be at least partially recharged while passengers are boarding or exiting the aircraft. He also predicts we’ll see several well-engineered flying cars in the next one to three years and that there will be human pilots, at least managing the onboard computers, for the foreseeable future.

Well, I’m not a sci-fi fan, so I’m not sure just how seductive that vision is, but I’m happy that there will be human pilots on those Elevates for the foreseeable future. Nice that there will be some jobs around, given that Uber plans to buy up a ton of self-driving cars once they come onto the market.

Meanwhile, I’m back to thinking about just how much fun a flying sandbox would have been…

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