Aircraft Accidents and Uber

It was on the day that Emmett Brown engaged his Mister Fusion with garbage, charged up the Flux Capacitor and blasted into November 2015, that the view of aerial traffic changed forever.  You probably didn’t hear about it; it occurred just over two years ago, but, then, it never really happened.

Science fiction movies made since Back to the Future II debuted in 1989, have made sure that aerial traffic was properly displayed; even reboots of the original Star Wars trilogy suddenly found vehicles making their way across the Tatooine sky in orderly fashion.  There are uniform lines of aerial vehicles, crisscrossing the skyline; methodical ‘On’ and ‘Off’ ramps; no one passing or cutting off.

Okay, here’s the deal: I just read that Uber, the car ride service available in 633 cities worldwide, is planning on launching uberAIR.  This service, which is being tested in Dallas, Texas (test site one); and Los Angeles, California (test site two); will offer cross city routes that move people in electric vehicle take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOLs) at 200 miles per hour.

Having spent some time driving through New York City and many major cities across the United States, I have visions of new and improved problems yet to be conceived of.  For instance, could there be rush hour gridlock above the Business District at one hundred feet of altitude?  Is it possible to double park two Ubers, vertically or horizontally?  Can you drop a lawyer off outside his office … on the 56th floor?

From my review of the historical documents, George Jetson’s home was thousands of feet in the air; Astro’s walking pad was a safety hazard with a five thousand-foot drop.  Now we’re talking about making uber-mobiles (excuse me, aerial uber-mobiles) as plentiful in a major city as pigeons.  My question is: who is responsible for the aerial uber-mobiles?

In the last year we have had a rush of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) news; demands by their industry to write Federal Aviation Regulations (FAA) governing the use and safety of UAVs.  There have been discussions about UAVs getting too close to airliners – a disaster in the making – while commercial UAV operators have tried unsuccessfully to distance themselves from amateur UAV operators; they try to avoid being painted with a broad brush of unsafe activities, at the same time trying to kick-start their new business.

UAVs still suffer from the bad press.  The FAA has tried to be timely with regulations, but have had to deal with the rest of those occupying the national airspace system (NAS) resisting the introduction of UAVs into everyday life.

As my mentor, the late Bill O’Brien told me, the changing of a Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR), the rules by which the aviation community is regulated, is a 3 X 3 commitment.  What this means is that the process to change aviation rules, even the rewording of a rule, takes three years and three million dollars … PER RULE.  I have taken part in this process on several occasions and the 3 X 3 estimate doesn’t allow for inflation, so the cost is more like five million.  The point is, this is an accurate estimate.  And with the introduction of a new entity – eVTOLs – there will be many rules – many rules times three to five million dollars apiece – necessary to regulate the new industry, just like UAVs.

EVTOLs are new; they are manned; they are occupied by customers; they have first-hand visual perception.  But they fly, and here’s the rub: Aerial vehicles would normally fall under the FAA’s jurisdiction.  Helicopters found inside a city’s limits, being used in, e.g. construction or police work, are overseen by the FAA.

Under FAA authority, aerial helicopters must be lighted: anti-collision lighting and directional lighting (lights that identify whether a helicopter is flying towards or away from you).  The loss of lighting may restrict an operator from operating at night; require the helicopter to be repaired or lamped per a minimum equipment list that restricts the helicopter’s operations.  Just the ability to be seen makes up many of a helicopter’s restrictions when operating within a city’s limits.

Another restriction is altitude and proximity to structures.  Helicopters and UAVs aren’t allowed to fly willy-nilly through a city skyline; there are proximity issues, flying over people issues, privacy issues, etc.  Also included would be how high they can fly … or how low; there are wires, construction cranes, window washers, banners, street lights and other objects of interference that can limit or endanger an eVTOL.

If they are flying above the city, how does one control them?  Are they controlled by the local airport’s air traffic control system or are there specially designed traffic lights?  Are there ‘lanes’ that they must adhere to, both vertical and horizontal?  How do they enter and exit these lanes?  Are the authorities going to get proactive about these questions or are they waiting until an accident to start to piece together what needs to be done?

Perhaps this is all moot and the local municipalities will be responsible for the new eVTOLs; the local Police Departments could end up being responsible for controlling the new wave of aerial vehicles.  Or perhaps the FAA and their FARs will become the law of the land.

My concern is that this new concept will become a comedy of errors; not the kind causing belly laughs like Old Doc Brown, but the kind that is called Reactive.  It has been my experience that when something this new age comes along, it starts demanding validation right away.  It will not be easy to get back from the future.

Happy and safe Thanksgiving to all.

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