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Uber Taps AT&T to Boost Connectivity for Cargo Drones

Uber has announced plans to demonstrate electric-powered urban air taxis, called vertical take-off and landing vehicles, in 2020. It also aims to launch the first commercial use of them in 2023.

by Melissa Repko The Dallas Morning News / June 12, 2019
Uber unveiled its flying-car concept on Tuesday, May 8, 2018, saying it wants to do its part to advance the electric air-taxi industry. (Dreamstime/TNS) TNS

(TNS) — Uber announced Tuesday that it has tapped AT&T to help it get urban air taxis off the ground. The San Francisco tech company will work with Dallas-based AT&T to make aerial ridesharing and cargo-delivering drones safer and more reliable.

AT&T will research how to boost connectivity for the urban air taxis and drones, which will operate at low altitudes. It will also explore how that connectivity could improve with 5G. The next-generation network is expected to improve speed and reliability and bring nearly instant response times.

AT&T is already working with Uber to test drone delivery in San Diego. Its networks will be used to support the launch of Uber Copter, a high-end helicopter service that's launching in New York City in July.

"Ridesharing services were one of the defining mobile applications of the 4G era," AT&T's chief technology officer Andre Fuetsch said in a news release. "Air taxis and other new air vehicles could well eventually become a signature use case for 5G."

Uber announced the partnership at a two-day summit in Washington, D.C. about Uber Air, an aerial ridesharing service that could make it possible for people to travel through the skies instead of on the highways. About 1,500 tech executives, policymakers and aviation officials from 31 countries are attending the conference. Politicians, regulators and federal officials, including U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, are also speaking at the event.

Since Uber announced its ambitions for the project two years ago, Dallas has been one of its key markets. Uber plans to demonstrate the electric-powered urban air taxis, called vertical take-off and landing vehicles, in 2020. It aims to launch the first commercial use of them in 2023. It has chosen Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne as the cities where Uber Air will launch first.

Dallas is also a contender for a major Uber expansion and a large office that would span its businesses and bring thousands of jobs. Uber has zeroed in on a site in Deep Ellum.

But Uber will have to overcome multiple hurdles to make its Jetsons-like vision of the future a reality, from getting the aircraft certified to managing crowded airspace. It will also have to use technology to seamlessly synchronize customers' trips, including the first and last portion on the ground as well as the transportation in the air. To make the service economical, Uber officials say the company must match multiple customers who will ride in the urban air taxis together — similar to an Uber Pool, its shared car service.

Chris Penrose, AT&T's senior vice president of internet of things solutions, said connectivity is crucial for Uber to fulfill its short- and long-term vision for Uber Air. It will help the company seamlessly match up riders for aerial ridesharing and coordinate their car or scooter ride on the ground while they're flying through the air. It could eventually help Uber achieve its ultimate goal: a fleet of urban air taxis that can operate autonomously.

Penrose said one of the major challenges will be maintaining consistent coverage when there are many visible cell towers. On the ground, a cellphone can figure out which tower to use for the strongest signal, he said. That's more complicated in the air.

He said AT&T will explore how to use algorithms to direct urban air taxis or drones toward certain towers. "How do you say that over this particular path, 'This is the set of towers I want you to use. Even if you see towers, don’t pivot to those?' " he said.

Uber's urban air taxis are expected to travel between 150 and 200 miles per hour and at a cruising altitude of 1,000 to 2,000 feet above the ground. That's much slower and lower to the ground than commercial flights, which cruise around 500 mph at 35,000 feet. Its cargo drones will operate at under 400 feet.

Uber is working with several other North Texas businesses. Fort Worth-based helicopter maker Bell is designing an urban air taxi that may be used for the service. Dallas-based real estate developer Hillwood plans to build skyports, stations where people will take off and land in urban air taxis. It has begun construction on its first one near Frisco Station, a mixed-use development near the Dallas Cowboys' headquarters and practice facility.

©2019 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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