Uber Air set to take off flying taxi trial in Melbourne

Melbourne will be the third city in the world to trial a new app-hailed Uber service that transports people by air, in a step Victoria says will cement the city’s innovation credentials.

The Victorian capital is joining Dallas and Los Angeles in a pilot of Uber Air flights from 2020, ahead of commercial operations starting in 2023.

The electric aircraft will, in the longer term, be able to fly people across cities for the same price as the car ride-share service UberX.
Uber Air flying taxi

Regional general manager for Uber in Australia, New Zealand and North Asia Susan Anderson said the move was possible because of forward-thinking Australian governments.

“This, coupled with Melbourne’s unique demographic and geospatial factors, and culture of innovation and technology, makes Melbourne the perfect third launch city for Uber Air,” she said on Wednesday.

“We will see other Australian cities following soon after.”

Treasurer Tim Pallas said the Victorian Government would support the venture, but not financially, and alongside Civil Aviation Authority and other key bodies.

The plan is for the electric aircraft, accredited by CASA, to take off and land vertically from a network of landing and take-off pads dubbed “skyports”.

Melbourne was selected after an 18-month process.

“(It’s) a testament to this city’s capacity to innovate, embrace new ideas adopt early, and we’ve got a track record of doing it,” Mr Pallas said.

In fact, the Government expects Victorians to be taking an Uber Air to the airport before they will be able to catch a train.

“The expectation is, subject to the confirmation through the appropriate regulatory authorities as to safety and airspace access, there will be a capacity to take Uber Air to the airport long before Melbourne airport rail is up and running,” Mr Pallas said.

“But, of course, Melbourne airport rail is still a vitally important option that we need to be able to provide to all Victorians because one is about getting there quick, the other one is about getting there in large numbers and consistent frequency.”

It’s expected that a 19km trip from the CBD to Melbourne Airport will take about 10 minutes with Uber Air, compared to up to an hour by car.

In Melbourne, Uber is working with Westfield shopping centres owner Scentre Group, which has seven centres in the city, to help deliver its service.

“We are curious to understand the role our platform may be able to play in the delivery of Australia’s future mobility options and how this could integrate with current ground transport which already includes ridesharing,” Scentre chief strategy and business development officer Cynthia Whelan said.

Other Australian companies involved in helping to provide the infrastructure needed for the pilot include Macquarie Capital and Telstra, as well as Melbourne Airport.

The global ridesharing giant's Uber Air pilot — which will also run in the US cities of Dallas and Los Angeles — aims to connect transport hubs like airports to central city sites.

The rideshare company said test flights were due to start from 2020 and plans were for commercial operations to begin from 2023.

Jake Whitehead, a University of Queensland researcher who specialises in transport, said the timeline was achievable from a technological perspective.

"We are very close to the point that battery technologies can support these kinds of smaller vehicles," Dr Whitehead said.

"What will be the challenge is the regulation.

"I'd hate to see us be in a position where it's a repeat of Uber ground vehicles where governments aren't adequately prepared for this technology, and aren't proactively working with these companies to look at how to make sure that we can benefit from this technology, and not end up in a situation where it's absolute chaos."

Dr Whitehead said Uber's "extremely aggressive" approach to entering new markets in the past should prompt governments to think carefully about what regulations are needed to preserve liveability.

"The reality is there are some downsides to this technology if it's a free-for-all and there are no rules in place."

 A drawing of a small airborne vehicle, similar to a plane but with many propellers, taking off from a rooftop helipad. 
PHOTO: Uber also plans to offer flights in the US cities of Los Angeles and Dallas. (Supplied: Uber)
Uber flags expansion to other Australian cities
The announcement was made at Uber's Elevate summit in Washington after the deal was sealed with Melbourne Airport and companies Macquarie Capital, Scentre Group and Telstra.

"Australian governments have adopted a forward-looking approach to ridesharing and future transport technology," said Susan Anderson, regional general manager for Uber in Australia, New Zealand and North Asia.

"This, coupled with Melbourne's unique demographic and geospatial factors, and culture of innovation and technology, makes Melbourne the perfect third launch city for Uber Air.

"We will see other Australian cities following soon after."

The rideshare company has been a disruptor to traditional taxi services in Australia and is currently facing a class action lawsuit from taxi drivers.

Some Australian Uber drivers have protested over their pay and conditions, most recently joining a global protest in May.

Ms Anderson said Victoria's State Government had been "highly supportive" of the plans for the trial.

"Melbourne is one of the world's most liveable cities and importantly it's innovations like this that demonstrate that we're at the leading edge of new technologies," Treasurer Tim Pallas told the ABC.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) told ABC Radio Melbourne the authority would work with the company to ensure the service was safe before it started operating.

CASA spokesman Peter Gibson said the list of challenges for Uber was a long one:

The company would have to get a safety certification for the new battery-operated aircraft — which does not exist yet
The airspace they would use would have to be managed by authorities
The people operating the aircraft would need specialised training
Infrastructure for the mini-airports does not yet exist
The regional general manager of Uber Eats, Jodie Auster, conceded the days of pilotless flight were a long way off.

"There's a lot of work to do. An urban ridesharing network in the sky does not happen overnight. It's going to take some time," she said.

 A digital illustration of a small propeller-driven aircraft approaching a building rooftop to land.

Trial to move away from 'noisy, inefficient' helicopters

It proposed using sites like car parks roofs and existing helipads to run the service.

"The closest equivalent technology in use today is the helicopter," the paper said.

"But helicopters are too noisy, inefficient, polluting and expensive for mass-scale use."

Investigators created multiple false identities to launch a covert "sting" against Uber when it launched in Australia.
VTOLs would make use of "autonomy technology" to reduce the risk of operator error.

Uber is certainly not the only company racing to take over the skies.

Airbus is trialling its own air taxi service using a prototype electric aircraft, similar to a drone, which can take off and land vertically.

German company Volocopter is set to test its own drone-based vehicles in Singapore later this year.

Air New Zealand has also said it is examining an autonomous electric air taxi service.

It would not be the first time Uber has offered an air service in Melbourne.

Uber Chopper subsidised $1,000 one-way helicopter flights from Batman Park to Flemington Racecourse during last year's Melbourne Cup Carnival.

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