Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Where Uber's Going We Don't Need Roads

          By Brian Orlotti

Fort Worth TX based Bell Helicopter has unveiled a mock-up of the Nexus, a vertical take off and landing (VTOL) vehicle the company intends to build for Uber’s proposed air taxi service.

The Nexus offers an appealing vision for the future of air travel---as interpreted by Uber.

A hybrid-electric propulsion aircraft, the Bell Nexus will use six tilting ducted fans to vertically take off and land from a rooftop or helipad. It will seat five passengers and have a gross weight capacity of 272 kilograms.

As outlined in the January 7th, 2019 the Verge post, "Bell’s hybrid-electric flying car will be available via Uber by the ‘mid-2020s,’" the aircraft’s fans are hidden inside ducts rather than exposed to ease passengers’ safety concerns about being close to fast-spinning blades.

Bell chose hybrid-electric propulsion over a purely electric system so that the aircraft could fly further and carry more weight. Bell wants the Nexus to be versatile enough to serve other markets (i.e. military, cargo transport) should the anticipated market for urban air taxis not pan out.

Uber first announced introduced its plan for a ride-sharing service in urban airspace in 2016. The company laid out a vision of a network of small, electric, autonomous aircraft (dubbed the sexier name of ‘flying cars’ by some) shuttling passengers from rooftop to rooftop (or ground-based helipad) to alleviate gridlock.

Since then, at least 19 other firms are developing air taxis/flying cars. These include legacy manufacturers like Chicago IL based Boeing and Leiden, Netherlands based Airbus as well as small startups like Mountain View CA based Kitty Hawk (owned by Google founder Larry Page) and Webling Germany based Lilium Jet.

Anticipating regulatory and technical obstacles to its plans, Uber itself has made a point of partnering with aircraft makers, real estate firms, and government regulators to rally support.

For its part, Bell Helicopter is hoping to capture a futuristic market after decades as one of the top manufacturers of commercial and military VTOL aircraft (such as the V-22 Osprey and the upcoming V-280 Valor). Bell’s aim of having the Nexus flying in major cities by the mid-2020s may serve as a sign to investors that the company has its eye on the future.

Flying cars, long a staple of science fiction, now have the tantalizing potential to become science fact. Should the considerable obstacles to them be overcome, our cities may one day boast Blade Runner-like vistas of sleek vehicles zooming through the skies.

Here’s hoping those skies are still sunny with no murderous replicants on the prowl.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operator at the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a not-for-profit network service provider to the education and research sectors.

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