While lots of companies including Uber and Airbus have started exploring how sky-based urban travel could transform future human settlements, NASA is hoping to help put these efforts into hyper-speed. We’ll have to, a NASA rep tells Inverse, if we’re going to meet the challenges posed by ever-growing cities.

Making flying cars is about more than convenience, though to be sure convenience is a factor, too. Uber claims it could cut a two-hour drive from San Francisco to San Jose down to just 15 minutes, dropping fares from $111 with UberX to just $20 by flying car. There’s a sustainability case for innovation in flying cars too: Studies by the European Parliament show commercial flight emissions could rise from two percent of all man-made carbon emissions in 2015 to 22 percent by 2050, a trend that could be reversed by electric flying machines.

This vision took a decisive step toward reality last week at the NASA-hosted “Urban Air Mobility Grand Challenge Industry Day” last week. The two-day event, held in Seattle, was billed as a way of connecting NASA with the wider industry. It’s the precursor to a series of Grand Challenges aimed at capturing public imagination and sparking interest in the industry.

The first challenge, scheduled to take place around the end of 2020, will likely push vehicle developers, airspace managers and other stakeholders to complete a number of integration challenges, including flight tests that show the vehicles can handle failures. Future challenges will focus on issues like weather, surveillance, and scheduling. Participants interested in the first challenge have until November 16 to respond to the request for information. At the Seattle event public officials and members of the industry gathered together to lay the groundwork for these challenges.

Inverse spoke with J.D. Harrington, NASA public affairs officer, to find out more:

Inverse: What are the key goals of the Grand Challenge Series?

Harrington: Our vision is to revolutionize mobility around metropolitan areas by enabling safe, efficient, convenient, affordable, environmentally friendly and accessible air transportation system at all altitudes. The Urban Air Mobility Grand Challenge that NASA is sponsoring will provide the proving ground for industry, academia, and local governments to demonstrate current state of technology readiness and will help influence operating rules for this new transportation system.

I: Could you tell me about some of the concrete plans NASA has for testing urban air mobility?

H: Through our Grand Challenge, we will provide an opportunity for vehicle developers to test their vehicles and operating systems in a series of test scenarios. The primary focus of the scenarios is to assess performance on a wide range of safety factors and could help lead to a regulatory framework for eventual certification. NASA will evaluate challenge participant’s vehicles using our airworthiness process to review design readiness. Additionally, we will evaluate aircraft through multiple normal flight operations and emergency flight conditions. Each of these flights will test the operations of the vehicle in real-world conditions, such as bulked landings, certain weather conditions, emergency landing situations, lost communications links, and a host of other situations.

I: Was the two-day event a success?

H: The Industry Day was quite successful. It met our expectations for bringing together a diversity of potential industry partners to learn more about the Grand Challenge and begin conversations on how we will use the data from the challenge to influence eventual regulation of this new air transportation industry. The next step in the process is for people to reply to NASA’s Request for Information with their formal comments. Then, we will evaluate the comments and start moving toward developing partnerships with participants and then on to conducting the Challenge.

NASA's vision of what these flying cities could look like.
NASA's vision of what these flying cities could look like.

I: How does this initiative compare to Silicon Valley efforts like Uber VTOL? Would this support such efforts with expertise?

H: We would like to see any organization developing technologies related to Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) taxis, autonomous package delivery, vehicle landing ports, communications systems, or any related items come and participate in the Grand Challenge. Our interest is in helping to move this blossoming new industry from concept to implementation. By sponsoring the challenge, NASA will lend its technical expertise in providing a robust system-level approach to evaluating all aspects of urban air mobility vehicles and supporting infrastructure.

I: Will I be able to one day take a flying taxi across San Francisco, for example, through the efforts of this initiative?

H: Yes, that is our vision. Industry studies predict that by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in large cities. Today cities are already challenged by limited space to develop new roads or ground transportation systems. We believe that by leveraging the unused airspace above cities we can help reduce the stresses on the infrastructure below and, in the process, also help drive down greenhouse gas emissions by using electric propulsion for the air vehicles.

I: Why flying machines? Elon Musk has expressed fears about such vehicles in a cityscape.

H: There are obviously many different visions for future transportation systems. We believe that opening the skies is a logical step in relieving congestion on the streets below. We have seen tremendous advances in technology enabling electric propulsion systems to power aircraft. Developments in autonomous flight systems are making aircraft safer and more efficient. New air traffic management systems are enabling operators of all types of air vehicles to share the sky in a safe, secure and efficient manner. Just as jet aircraft help revolutionize cross-county and overseas travel last century, we believe urban air mobility will do the same for our city environments.

Photos via NASA/Lillian Gipson, NASA / Lillian Gipson