SXSW: The evolving future of aerospace for consumers

Mike Berry with Hillwood, Michael Thacker with Bell, Gwen Lighter with GoFly and Nikhil Goel with Uber are at the Urban Air Taxi and the Future of ride Sharing Panel.

AUSTIN – As tech, music and fashion has evolved, so has transit, and travel methods that once seemed unattainable are becoming reality, from self-parking and self-driving vehicles to fully electric vehicles.

Next on the dream list for companies such as Bell and Uber are autonomous vertical take-off and landing vehicles, while GoFly works with innovators to bring to market the next best flying things with new and innovative technology.

All three companies made presentations at a Fort Worth Now panel during the city’s first venture into the South by Southwest festival in Austin.

Speakers on the panel, Urban Air Taxis and the Future of Ridesharing, discussed vehicle design, infrastructure, regulations and the vision for personal flying devices such as jet packs and hover bikes.

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Moderator Mike Berry, president of Hillwood Properties, led a panel composed of Nikhil Goel, head of product for advanced programs with Uber; Gwen Lighter, GoFly Prize CEO; and Michael Thacker, Bell executive vice president, to detail the new and next of flying vehicles.

“Admittedly I was skeptical when the Uber Elevate air taxi model was explained to me,” Berry said. “But after working on the project for over a year … it has become clear the future of the Jetsons [is here].”

A collaboration among Hillwood, Uber Elevate and Bell means that as soon as 2020, with the ease of using the Uber app, consumers could be able to request their vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft.

Hillwood is Uber Elevate vertiport development partner. Berry explained that vertiports could exist on virtually any building given the quiet nature of VTOLs, and that means they might actually raise the property values of various locations by making them more accessible.

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Bell (formerly Bell Helicopter) is developing VTOLs while Uber’s focus is fully electric VTOLs.

Either way the goal is simple — giving consumers their time back with more convenient travel.

“We’ve taken the opportunity to share our vision of what the future of aviation looks like — bringing aviation to you,” Thacker said. “Traditionally, we’ve been a product-focused company, but in this area we are focused on the user experience and how this affects people and their lives.

“An urban air taxi can change the way you live. … Our goal is to turn hours of commuting into family time. It is an exciting future and it’s closer than you think.”

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Uber’s Goel pointed out that half the world’s population now live in cities, and the United Nations predicts that by 2045 two thirds will live in cities. This is why, he said, urban air transport is so important.

“Today transportation is slow, it’s congested and it’s often unreliable,” he said. “All of our efforts on the ground were great. But there’s a natural limit to what we can do on the ground.”

Through the question “How could we take mobility to the air?” partnerships were started and Uber Elevate was born.

Goel said Uber was founded to “push a button get a ride,” and there’s no reason that needs to be limited to ground transportation.

“Uber is designed to be a magical experience,” Goel said, “which we define with four pillars: time, calm, money and joy.”

The panel discussed the vision of innovative tech connecting consumers to new modes of travel. But the idea of people buying their own personal flying devices is something GoFly brought to the discussion.

GoFly is a company dedicated to working with innovators to award a multi-million-dollar prize for the winning personal flying device.

According to Lighter, 2,300 participants from 86 countries across six continents are competing for the prize.

From university teams of undergrad and graduate students and professors, to professionals with years of experience in the field, to business startups, to medium and large companies, Lighter said, “We really run the gamut.”

The contest is sponsored by Boeing and supported by 20 other aviation companies internationally. The winner will be announced in October 2019 after a final fly in Texas.

“Just like there are many different types of automobiles, we want these innovators to be able to create different types of devices and, in the end, the market will decide which device is best for which utility,” Lighter said. “We have asked the world to think up and design the stuff of your dreams.”

With new technology comes new infrastructure, prompting questions about the feasibility of rethinking aerospace regulations and routes.

“I think it’s probably best to liken where we are in this personal flying device realm to the start of the automotive industry such that there was no major system of roads or highways for individual drivers until we had the technology,” Lighter said. “When we have that technology, the FAA will respond accordingly.”

Goel said discussions will be needed on battery requirements, pilot requirements and standards, vehicle requirements and operations requirements for Federal Aviation Administration Part 135 Air Taxi.

“It is a very integrated approach that we need to take not only with the FAA but cities, states, countries and not just in the U.S. but around the world,” Goel said. “We have been very surprised to see the FAA taking a very progressive stance on this.”

These companies are breaking new ground and will need local municipalities and the FAA and major regulatory agencies to work together and navigate necessary regulations and standards, panelists said.

“The FAA realizes that we are truly in a golden moment of aviation. All of these breakthrough techs, the convergence of them, make this truly that golden moment of aviation,” Lighter said. “While they are tasked with keeping the public safe and that is their No. 1 priority, they want to make sure they are” at the forefront of aviation and keep the United States competitive.