The highways off North Texas are clogged with traffic, but from a luxury helicopter, 500 feet in the air, it's just part of the scenery. Pilot James Williams is listening to the radio chatter from the control tower at nearby Dallas Fort Worth International Airport; there's another helicopter nearby. Williams looks at the cockpit's digital display. "That's Ross Perot's bird," he says of the other aircraft.
Today, when you see a helicopter in the air, it's safe to assume that helo is operated by a government agency, hospital, or flying at the behest of a wealthy customer or owner. But here in north Texas, a cabal of industries is working with the ride-sharing company Uber to introduce short, on-demand flights at affordable prices. "The business case is to bring this to the masses," says Scott Drennan, Bell's director of innovation.
Forth Worth-based Bell Helicopter is informally partnered with Uber on this project (so is Perot's construction firm). Bell is hosting these flights to give the media a sense of what life is like with a helicopter commute. As I look out over the metro, Williams guides Bell's luxury 429 helicopter out toward the Dallas Cowboys' practice facility in Frisco. This is the first location Uber plans to open a flying taxi revenue route, which the company hopes will happen in 2020. Dubai and Los Angles also have their eyes on the flying taxi service called Uber Elevate.
Williams is not looking down as he flies 500 feet above North Texas, but instead scans the air around the helo. He occasionally glances down at the digital pad on his lap, which shows a map of the local airspace and radio frequencies of air traffic towers. As a senior test pilot for Bell, he's familiar with the territory, but Williams still relies on the chart to fly the route.
Watching him fly around Dallas showcases how the flying taxi future could work—and what could doom the idea.
Uber announced its plan in Dallas in April 2017. These future taxis will not be like conventional helicopters, the company says, but electric vehicles that will be cheaper and safer to fly in urban environments. “It’s natural for Uber to turn our eyes to the air,” said Jeff Holden, the company’s chief product officer. “Push a button and get a flight.”
Since then, the idea of "urban air mobility" has caught on, so much so that the idea is grafting onto existing plans for commercializing unmanned aerial vehicles. Years ago, Congress demanded the federal government reshape the rules of American airspace to satisfy the aspirations of drone photographers and Amazon delivery UAVs. That idea now encompasses this more ambitious business plan of flying people around.
But how will the airspace management system handle flying taxis? My ride in the 429 offers a glimpse into the way helicopter pilots do it today, and how those lessons will extend to flying taxis.
There's an FAA-monitored system in place that carves up airspace into classifications based on the tightness of the restrictions. Airport airspace is considered Class B, a sacrosanct category that requires aircraft to have transponders, pilots licensed to travel there, and radios that are in with an airport's ATC tower.
Before Williams enters the Dallas airport’s airspace, he informs the DFW tower of his intentions. "We're heading on Route 183 heading East," Williams says. "Taking the Spine Road up to Colony."
These are references not to roads on the ground, but to the names of that the FAA has mapped out overhead. They often follow rivers and large roadways, to give pilots visual references and to keep rotor noise away from residences and offices. "Route 183" follows that highway, while "Spine Road" is the most direct North-South path through the airport, right between the runways and terminals. "Colony" starts near the airport and runs west along SH 120.
In many places, using these routes is optional (that's how news helicopters can appear right over a house fire or police chase). But in Class B airspace, the air traffic controllers call the shots, and they use these lanes to keep their airspace clear. The tower announces our presence to a pilot landing an airliner. "He shouldn't be a factor," the ATC guy says about the Bell helicopter.
"Yeah," Williams mutters over the helicopter's internal headset. "If I'm a factor, you're the one in the wrong spot."
These skylanes would be the backbone of a future flying taxi service, just as they serve the today’s well-heeled helicopter commuters of North Texas. This invisible infrastructure is already overhead, available to the privileged few.
Ross Perot’s helicopter wants to first take the trip north along Spine Road first, and Williams tilts the Bell 429 into a tight turn to allow the other bird a safe distance, then follows. Landmarks familiar to airline passengers pass on both sides: parking toll booths, parking garages, gate signs, and (at eye level) the air traffic control tower.
The pair of helos part on the other side of the airport. Williams heads west, taking the skyway called Colony toward Frisco. Our helicopter circles the Cowboy's practice facility and the construction zone that is Frisco Station, where Perot family's real estate firm, Hillwood, is building Uber's first American test veriport. The nearby stadiums for the Dallas Cowboys and the Texas Rangers are other vertiport possibilities.“ At the big entertainment hubs, we can fairly quickly get these vertiports up,” Ross Perot Jr. said while announcing Hillwood's involvement.
Riding shotgun in the Bell cockpit, it's easy to see the advantages of this mode of travel. Indeed, such luxury already exists for those who can pay. Anyone with the Blade app loaded on their phone can order a $500, 45-minute helicopter ride. Private helicopters cost around $3000 for that same time trip. that once Elevate is fully up and running, a 30-minute trip from Dallas to Fort Worth could cost about $110 during a peak travel time.
The key to dropping prices so much is scale. The more flying taxis in the air, the cheaper it'll be to operate and use them. The Uber Elevate cabal is talking about putting thousands of them in the sky—a number that will require the helicopters to fly without pilots on board.
There are plenty of hurdles to be cleared to make this happen, for sure. As the trip with Bell demonstrates, the current air traffic control system is founded on the airmanship of pilots and communication with those who monitor controlled airspace. Humans have become very good at this, and it remains to be seen if robots or remote human operators can fill a pilot’s shoes in the cockpit. Regulators have to certify that autonomous vehicles are safe, autonomy demands unbreakable cybersecurity, and the upfront costs are scary.
The biggest X factor? Our own willingness to pay good money to board an electric helicopter with no pilot inside. Of all the variables standing in the way of the affordable flying taxi, this may be the most untested element of them all.