Uber’s helicopter service could chart the future of moving around cities

Flying cars are about to become a lot more integrated.

Uber wants to change how people move around a city.

On Thursday, the company announced that Uber Copter will be now available for New Yorkers traveling between Manhattan and the John F. Kennedy Airport. Any Uber riders going between the two in weekday afternoon rush hour will have the option of switching from a car to a helicopter.

The project lays the groundwork for transforming city-based transport. Mobility-as-a-Service, or MaaS, involved using a single smartphone app to get from A to B using a variety of transport options. Maybe bike to bus then taxi is the fastest way to get home? A MaaS app simplifies the whole process, weighing up options and coming up with an easy route that requires one payment. It’s this Uber Copter trial, Uber’s first shot at multi-modal transport, that could lay the foundations for more ambitious systems in the future.

“We are excited to bring Uber Copter to all Uber riders so they can experience our first iteration of aerial ridesharing” Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate, said in a statement. “We built this multimodal app experience to take riders between ground and air transportation so that five passengers have perfectly timed, fully-integrated journeys. This is our first step to what will become a future Uber Air network.”

Uber explained to Inverse that it hopes to use the experience from Uber Copter to fine-tube its app for this multi-modal future. It wants to make sure the booking, switching and boarding process is as simple as possible. Ahead of this future, it has joined the MaaS Alliance and unveiled plans for a broader air-based service, launching in 2023 and powered by vertical-takeoff-and-landing crafts.

How the system will work.
How the system will work.

Uber Copter: how it works

Uber Copter works through the regular Uber app like any other journey. The eight-minute ride can be booked up to five days in advance. The trip includes regular car rides at either end of the trip. Pricing, like the car rides, is dynamic and moves between $200 and $225 per person. Each helicopter fits five passengers, and riders can book as many seats as they like.

This is the precursor to a broader Uber Air service, which the company expects to launch in 2023 in Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne. A flight test demonstration is expected at the end of this year.

The company’s 2016 white paper detailed how this system may work in practice. The vehicles would be zero-emissions, using a battery pack for the short journey. It aims to get the boarding process down to one minute to ensure speedy switching between modes of transport. The use of vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicles negates the need for a runway, offering more flexibility for landing spots.

The Uber Copter flying to Manhattan.
The Uber Copter flying to Manhattan.

Over time, the economies of scale are expected to drive down the cost of flights. Uber is hoping that while an Uber Air trip from the marina in San Francisco to downtown San Jose will probably cost $129 initially versus $111 for a standard UberX, it could grow to become even more competitive to reach just $20. The two-hour-10-minute flight could also take as little as 18 minutes by VTOL.

Uber is not the only company exploring MaaS as a way of simplifying city transport. Automakers like Uniti and Sono Motors have looked at car-sharing apps that could build into other modes of transport to offer a single, clear means of getting around.

MaaS may not stop there. A concept vehicle designed by Airbus and Audi uses a pod that attaches to different modular extras, meaning a user can move from ground-based transport to air-based transport without even leaving their seat.

The future of transport could end up looking a lot more integrated.

Media via Uber