Firms Behind The Designs For Uber's 'Flying Taxi' Skyports Discuss Uber's Wants, Reactions, Next Steps
Uber's "flying taxis" might be only five years away, but first the supporting real estate has to be addressed.
Concepts proposed for the Skyports — part "The Jetsons" and part tiny airport — are ambitious and conceptual, based on guidelines Uber offered to potential partners: a mega-Skyport on a small footprint capable of 1,000 takeoffs and landings in an hour, where thousands of passengers could be shuttled between air, transit and car with minimal noise and maximum efficiency.
Uber Elevate has chosen Dallas, Los Angeles and Dubai as the potential test sites, with the goal of a first launch by 2023. Uber would provide each four-seat flying taxi — an electric-powered eight-rotor drone known as an electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing, or eVTOL.
Dallas is a major part of this endeavor beyond being a pilot city. Three of the six architecture firms providing Uber concepts are from the city. Hillwood, the developer of Alliance Airport, is Uber Elevate's partner in the metro. It would put up all or some of the capital for mega-Skyports in Dallas and will build some of these locations. It tapped three of its longtime local partners draft concepts.
Here is how each architecture firm's experience, philosophy and vision shaped its concept.
Corgan's aviation practice could be a good fit for an Uber skyport. A top airport construction firm in the country, Corgan designed Terminal D at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and the modernization of Love Field.
Principal John Trupiano said Corgan focused on two priorities: an operational model that could turn eVOTLs around quickly and a structure that could provide an attractive, functional experience for passengers.
"We started from the inside and worked out," Trupiano said. "It's really form following function. We definitely wanted to understand where the people are, how they're using it, and then develop the architecture around that to create the experience that we're looking for, instead of creating some big swoopy roof where we're shoving the airport underneath it."
Corgan's concept is a series of interlocking modules, with a single module accommodating about 90 landings per hour. The transaction time — from landing to takeoff — is just under seven minutes, with a eVOTL taking off every 20 seconds. Trupiano envisions one of its first, and best, uses being the ability to empty AT&T Stadium in minutes rather than hours.
"These mega-Skyports really provide the most benefit for episodic events," Trupiano said. "Imagine being at a sporting event with over 100,000 of our closest friends, and all of you wanting to go home at the same time. Do you want to sit in your car in traffic in a parking garage for an hour and a half, or do you want to get home?"
This is not a model intended to drop you at your house, Trupiano said. Instead, it is a module or modules that would interface with other transit options, possibly located over a rail line or freeway. Passengers would go from vehicle to eVOTL to vehicle on each end of the experience.
Yes, the cost of such a trip could be at a premium, but as the volume of passenger climbs, and eVOTLs become self-piloted, the price point will drop, Trupiano said. The concept would likely start small, like the roof of a parking garage, where infrastructure costs would be low, he said.
"Our concept is a single module in areas where we think there is the greatest potential for this, and then grow and pair these modules until they're large enough to actually span something like a freeway, like an overpass," Trupiano said. "We have a lot of places in our urban centers where we have airspace, but no land, so this could be a way to have another transportation option in our cities that does not require land or divide our neighborhoods."
HUMPHREYS & PARTNERS ARCHITECTS
Humphreys & Partners Architects created a sky taxi idea before Uber announced its idea of mega-Skyports. The firm's conceptual high-rise apartment of the future in 2016 had its own sky deck for drone craft with recharging stations, as well as a large deck that could slide from floor to floor, allowing a resident to step directly from a balcony into a flying vehicle, ready for takeoff.
"So, without us knowing it, we actually were solving what we would later be asked to develop," Humphreys Design Director Walter Hughes said. "This is the way of the future. It's a lot closer than people think, and it is happening."
In the conceptual apartment of the future, a resident could summon the landing pad with the touch of a smartphone application.
"So you would call in your landing pad with your phone. You would say something like, 'Go to the 35th floor.' And the pad would go straight to your unit. We can actually get it down to something that individual."
Humphrey's mega-Skyport idea looks more like a honeycomb design, with circular decks stacked, one upon the other. As the traffic increased, another circular deck would be added to the stack. Because the Uber request asked for a limited footprint, Humphreys built up, not out.
"It's really a series of horizontal discs on top of each other, and then the landing pads go rotating as you go up each deck," Hughes said. "So there's no landing pad on top of another landing pad. In that way, you can comply with Federal Aviation Administration regulations."
Each disc has three distinct layers, Hughes said. The outer layer is the drones. The middle layer is where people circulate and the center of each layer is dedicated to people moving: elevators and stairs.
The structure is built with self-healing bioconcrete, a new construction material discovered about 30 years ago, Hughes said. A living insect embedded in the concrete produces a material that can heal cracks.
"The concept can have any kind of skin, but this makes the building very sustainable, and it's not a whole lot more expensive than concrete," Hughes said. "We actually developed 20 different scenarios — different skins — with the same concept."
BOKA Powell also has something of an aviation background, although that background is typically building the corporate facilities for various airlines and aviation companies. BOKA designed the Omni Convention Center Hotel in Dallas, as well as the Southwest Airlines Flight Training Center.
BOKA Powell's take on the mega-Skyport has the look of a multidimensional aircraft carrier. Principal Andrew Bennett describes his design as infrastructure, durable construction similar to a highway overpass or functional bridge.
"For us, it was the pure sort of fantastical idea of a futuristic way of moving people around, once we could wrap our arms around the math," Bennett said. "We were challenged to say how we could move thousands of people an hour, and the math really dictated the design."
Bennett describes the BOKA design concept as a type of harbor, one where lots of boats are coming and going at the same time. The design is linear, focused on being adaptable to the weather elements of North Texas.
"Other designs had amenity spaces within the projects. It was much more about food and beverage and eating," Bennett said. "We took the tack — again, using the mathematical approach — that this really is an algorithmic solution. You don't hang out here. This is a place you go through. You arrive, you're up in an elevator, you're on your drone vehicle and you're gone."
This is infrastructure that is near, but not replacing, a transit-oriented hub, Bennett said, pointing to the recent renovation of Denver's Union Station.
"You've got residential, you've got office, you've got everything there," Bennett said. "The skyport could be there, but it doesn't have to try to be everything to everyone."
No timeline has been set for any particular development scenario. Three other architects have also submitted bids for the Skyports. Uber's flying taxi concept likely will start small, and scale up with demand.