Uber in deal with NASA to build flying taxi air control software

This file photo shows the logo of the ride sharing service Uber seen in front of its headquarters in San Francisco, California on August 26, 2016. (File photo by AFP)
Updated 09 November 2017
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Uber in deal with NASA to build flying taxi air control software

LISBON: Uber is taking part in a joint industry and government push with NASA to develop software which the company aims to use to manage “flying taxi” routes that could work like ride-hailing services it has popularised on the ground.
Uber said on Wednesday it was the first formal services contract by the US National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) covering low-altitude airspace rather than outer space. NASA has used such contracts to develop rockets since the late 1950s.
Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden also said Uber would begin testing proposed four-passenger, 200-miles-per-hour (322-km-per-hour) flying taxi services across Los Angeles in 2020, its second planned test market after Dallas/Fort Worth.
Uber has faced regulatory and legal battles around the world since it launched taxi-hailing services earlier this decade, including in London where it is appealing against a decision to strip it of its license due to safety concerns.
Holden described Uber’s latest air taxi plans at Web Summit, an Internet conference in Lisbon, where he emphasised it was working to win approval from aviation regulators well ahead of introducing such services.
 
“There is a reality that Uber has grown up a lot as a company,” Holden said in an interview ahead of his speech. “We are now a major company on the world stage and you can’t do things the same way where you are a large-scale, global company that you can do when you are a small, scrappy startup.”
NASA said in a statement it had signed a generic agreement in January with Uber that enables the company to join a variety of industry partners working with NASA to develop a range of driverless air traffic management systems.
That deal calls for Uber to be involved during phase 4 of this work, which is scheduled to begin in March 2019, NASA said.
Phase 1, completed in 2015, involved field tests and ongoing testing at a US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) site for drones used in agriculture, fire-fighting and pipeline monitoring, NASA has said. Phase 2 in 2016 considered long distance uses in sparsely populated regions, while Phase 3 in 2018 will test services over moderately populated areas, leading to Phase 4 testing in high-density urban areas in 2019.
Uber is looking to speed development of a new industry of electric, on-demand, urban air taxis, Holden said, which customers could order up via smartphone in ways that parallel the ground-based taxi alternatives it has popularised while expanding into more than 600 cites since 2011.
Uber plans to introduce paid, intra-city flying taxi services from 2023 and is working with aviation regulators in the United States and Europe to win approvals toward that end, Holden told Reuters.
“We are very much embracing the regulatory bodies and starting very early in discussions about this and getting everyone aligned with the vision,” he said of Uber’s plans to introduce what he called “ride-sharing in the sky.”
MAKING TAXIS FLY
Earlier this year, Uber hired NASA veterans Mark Moore and Tom Prevot to run, respectively, its aircraft vehicle design team and its air traffic management software program.
During a 32-year career at NASA, Moore pioneered its electric jet propulsion project which Uber considers to be the core technology for making urban air transportation possible.
The agreement with NASA aims to solve issues involved in operating hundreds or even thousands of driverless aircraft over urban areas and allow them to co-exist with existing air traffic control systems as well as in and around busy airports.
Uber envisions a fleet of electric jet-powered vehicles — part helicopter, part drone and part fixed-wing aircraft — running multiple small rotors capable of both vertical take off and landing and rapid horizontal flight.
Uber is building software to manage networks in the sky of flying taxis and working with manufacturers including Aurora Flight Sciences, which was acquired by Boeing last month.
It has also signed up Embraer, Mooney, Bell Helicopter, and Pipistrel Aircraft to develop new vertical takeoff and landing aircraft for the service.


NASA’s new planet-hunter to seek closer, Earth-like worlds

NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, U.S., is shown in this artist's rendering image obtained on April 9, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 16 April 2018
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NASA’s new planet-hunter to seek closer, Earth-like worlds

TAMPA: NASA is poised to launch a $337 million washing machine-sized spacecraft that aims to vastly expand mankind’s search for planets beyond our solar system, particularly closer, Earth-sized ones that might harbor life.
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, is scheduled to launch Monday at 6:32 p.m. (2232 GMT) atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Its main goal over the next two years is to scan more than 200,000 of the brightest stars for signs of planets circling them and causing a dip in brightness known as a transit.
NASA predicts that TESS will discover 20,000 exoplanets — or planets outside the solar system — including more than 50 Earth-sized planets and up to 500 planets less than twice the size of Earth.
“They are going to be orbiting the nearest, brightest stars,” Elisa Quintana, TESS scientist at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, told reporters on Sunday.
“We might even find planets that orbit stars that we can even see with the naked eye,” she added.
“So in the next few years we might even be able to walk outside and point at a star and know that it has a planet. This is the future.”

TESS is designed as a follow-on to the US space agency’s Kepler spacecraft, which was the first of its kind and launched in 2009. Now, the aging spacecraft is low on fuel and near the end of its life.
Kepler found a massive trove of exoplanets by focusing on one patch of sky, which contained about 150,000 stars like the Sun.
The Kepler mission found 2,300 confirmed exoplanets and nearly 4,500 candidates. But many were too distant and dim to study further.
TESS, with its four advanced cameras, will scan an area that is 350 times larger, comprising 85 percent of the sky in the first two years alone.
“By looking at such a large section of the sky — this kind of stellar real estate — we open up the ability to cherry-pick the best stars to do follow up science,” said Jenn Burt, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“On average the stars that TESS finds observes be 30-100 times brighter and 10 times closer than the stars that Kepler focused on.”
Since TESS uses the same method as Kepler for finding potential planets, by tracking the dimming of light when a celestial body passes in front of a star, the next step is for ground-based and space telescopes to peer closer.
The Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space telescope, scheduled to launch in 2020, should be able to reveal more about planets’ mass, density and the makeup of their atmosphere.
“TESS forms a bridge from what we have learned about exoplanets to date and where we are headed in the future,” said Jeff Volosin, TESS project manager at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center.
By focusing on planets dozens to hundreds of light-years way, TESS should be a stepping stone to future breakthroughs, he said.
“With the hope that someday, in the next decades, we will be able to identify the potential for life to exist outside the solar system.”
Weather was expected to be 80 percent favorable for launch.