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'Why not fly over it?’ Uber picks New Jersey firms in ambitious bid to beat traffic congestion

By 2050, the United Nations predicts that 70 percent of the world’s populations will live in urban areas, inviting more cars to already congested highways. Two New Jersey companies are helping create an airborne solution.

Jaunt Air Mobility's model is a hybrid of a plane and a helicopter. It combines an airplane's wings and a helicopters top rotor to provide more stability and safety features.
Jaunt Air Mobility's model is a hybrid of a plane and a helicopter. It combines an airplane's wings and a helicopters top rotor to provide more stability and safety features.Read moreCourtesy of Jaunt Air Mobility (custom credit)

Two local companies are in the vanguard of building Uber’s latest venture of dominating cities’ skies through air taxis, a project called Uber Elevate.

Jaunt Air Mobility, an aerospace vehicle start-up in Pennsauken, and Price Systems, a cost estimation company in Mount Laurel, are working with Uber to design, build, and estimate the cost of making modern-looking electronic helicopters the future of urban transportation.

“As urban congestion continues to rise, so do the costs associated with it, including commuter time and costs for goods and services,” said Kaydon Stanzione, chief executive of Jaunt Air Mobility. By 2050, the United Nations predicts that 68% of the world’s populations will live in urban areas, diverting more cars onto already congested highways. Instead of trying to drive through the congestion, Uber asked, “Why not fly over it?”

It’s not that simple — the industry is still a long way away from the needed regulations and air traffic control, not to mention the safety concerns — but the company has ambitious plans to make Uber Air, the product within Uber Elevate, commercially available in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne, Australia, by 2023.

Uber Air looks to function as simply as pressing a button to order a car, but instead, a four-member aircraft will arrive. Uber selected Jaunt as its sixth vehicle manufacturing partner on June 11 to bring its vision to life. According to Stanzione, the ride-share giant, whose stock was worth about $74 billion last week, was attracted to Jaunt’s plane-helicopter hybrid design that aims to provide a quieter, safer, more comfortable flight.

“We have a model that says, ‘We want to be in 100 metropolitan cities across the U.S.,'" said Stanzione.

The five other manufacturers include Bell Helicopter, EmbraerX, Boeing’s Aurora Flight Sciences, Pipistrel Vertical Solutions, and Karem Aircraft. The companies are in the design phase, each rolling out a unique approach that fits Uber’s requirements of an electronic aircraft that can fly relatively quietly, carrying four passengers at 150 to 200 mph for 25 to 60 miles. The company said that, initially, the aircraft will be piloted but that, over time, they will become autonomous.

Stanzione said Jaunt’s aircraft will do all of this and more. “It flies like a helicopter and airplane that at any altitude or speed, if it loses all power, can land safely in a zero-roll landing on one spot.” He said the aircraft will fly at 1,000 to 2,000 feet, and that its airplane-like wings will allow it to glide to the ground while its rotor acts like a parachute if there are any issues during takeoff.

He also said that it uses a slowed rotor system, which minimizes the rotor’s drag through the air and cuts the sound of the helicopter by up to 40%, as noise pollution is a significant concern. The aircraft’s flight model also prevents it from taking off and landing at an angle, offering what he said would be a more comfortable ride.

Jaunt, which has 25 employees, plans to deliver a model to Uber in the next 30 months, a timeline that aligns similarly with Uber’s other five aircraft partners. Uber Elevate’s business looks to operate similarly to its ride sharing model, with Uber providing the app and platform, and the aircraft manufacturers running all of the operations, said JJ Raynor, business development lead for Uber Elevate.

“We remain open to adding more partners,” Raynor said. “The more partners we can have, the more we can serve the demand we expect.”

Building the vehicle — which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and will be funded entirely by Stanzione and his investors — without confirmation that the company will receive all the needed certifications and aviation approvals is a risk. He would not detail how much has been invested to date, and said that the company is seeking investors.

Stanzione has a long history in aeronautics. He holds a master’s degree in aerospace, mechanical, and industrial engineering from Rutgers, and was a flight test engineer and pilot for the U.S. Department of Defense for 20 years. In 2007, he founded Praxis Technology, a Pennsauken-based company that analyzes market gaps and manufactures hardware for the military.

Jaunt was born out of Stanzione’s April 2019 acquisition of Carter Aviation Technologies, an aviation research and technology development company from Wichita Falls, Texas. He would not disclose what he paid for the company, but he said that today, about 75% of Jaunt’s technologies are from Carter.

The price is right

Price Systems is working to make the venture as affordable as possible for Uber, the aircraft companies, and future passengers.

“We can estimate anything from paper clips to spaceships,” said Anthony DeMarco, president of Price, who helped the company break away from Lockheed Martin Corp. in 1998. “We want to ensure that the cost of this mode of transportation is the same if not less than someone in a city in a car.”

Although Uber has not announced its passenger cost, Stanzione said that Uber wants to make it as cheap as a couple of dollars a mile. The aircraft companies are required to make their vehicles operate at about $700 a flight hour. Right now, the companies are hitting about $1,200, but Stanzione is confident that Jaunt will hit the mark while using Price’s software.

Price’s cost estimation software, TruePlanning, uses algorithms comprised of data from various sources — from government public records to a company’s private data history — to project costs of building everything from a small engine within a Boeing helicopter to an entire missile-shooting tank for the U.S. Army, its largest customer.

This software is being used by Uber, as well as Jaunt, Bell Helicopter, and Karem Aircraft.

The Uber Elevate website says the firm is considering repurposing the roofs of parking garages, existing helicopter pads, and vacant land around highway interchanges to make the landing platforms for the air taxis. The website also said that unlike trains, buses, and cars, which are required to get from one point to another through one “fixed route," the air taxis can fly independently.

But that independence comes with regulatory risks, something that Rahul Mangharam, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s school of engineering and applied science, is researching solutions for.

“It’s going to be a very congested sky,” said Mangharam, who studies urban air mobility, specifically regarding drones delivering food or packages. “You want to make sure that each flight plan is safe by design, and that even if they do mess up for some reason, they have a fallback option.”

Mangharam and his doctoral students created Fly-by-Logic, an unmanned system that coordinates air traffic for small aerial vehicles such as drones or air taxis. They test the system at the Pennovation Center in Grays Ferry, and it works like a three-dimensional GPS for the sky. If a drone or air taxi were to miss its turn, the system would reroute it to avoid nearby vehicles.

“Commercial airlines fly through flight corridors, which are very regulated,” he said. “So how do we ensure that the safety of the air space, as these systems scale to the thousands of vehicles, maintain spacial awareness?" He said that his program has not specifically worked with Uber, but that it’s in conversation with the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA.

With the lack of regulations or formal systems in place, Mangharam doubts that air taxis will be officially available by Uber’s ambitious 2023 date. “They say the U.S. government is slow, but the FAA is slower," he said.

“Safety is something that you don’t want the industry to rush and trip over its feet on. It shouldn’t be an afterthought.”

Editor’s note: The story was updated on 08/09/2019 to clarify that Uber Elevate works with more than three partners