In an onstage interview with me today at the Nantucket Conference, Uber products head Jeff Holden said the fast-growing ride sharing company was seriously looking at a new form of transportation to offer its customers: Short-haul flying in cities.
Called VTOL—which stands for vertical takeoff and landing—Holden said that he has been researching the area, "so we can someday offer our customers as many options as possible to move around." He added that "doing it in a three-dimensional way is an obvious thing to look at."
Holden said in the interview that such technology could be in use within a decade, which is an aggressive prediction given issues of the complexity of movement in the air above densely populated areas. (Also, you know, the possibility of these VTOL vehicles crashing into each other.)
Holden, who previously worked at Amazon and Groupon, has been deeply involved in Uber's recent rollout of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, noted that the company accelerated the development of that technology after it was first mentioned by CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick only a few years ago.
VTOL is certainly a step further in ambition, but it's a pretty slick concept to imagine and the actual development of such vehicles is far along. Simply put, VTOL is an aircraft that can hover, take off and land vertically, which would also describe a helicopter. But, unlike the typical helicopter, these planes would have multiple rotors, could have fixed wings and perhaps eventually would use batteries and be more silent. In time, like cars, such aircraft could be autonomous.
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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 imagined 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.
VTOL is another thing altogether and, thus far, most of the development of vertical takeoff and landing has been done by the military. Below, for example, is a video that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is imagining as part of its VTOL Experimental Plane (VTOL X-Plane)program that "aims to overcome these challenges through innovative cross-pollination between fixed-wing and rotary-wing technologies and by developing and integrating novel subsystems to enable radical improvements in vertical and cruising flight capabilities.