After 30 years at NASA, Mark Moore is making an interesting career move: Joining Uber to develop autonomous, flying cars. Moore, former advanced aircraft engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center, is now the director of engineering for aviation at Uber Elevate. The initiative, outlined in a white paper in October 2016, is an ambitious plan to bring short-range air taxis into cities. It has the potential to “radically improve urban mobility, giving people back time lost in their daily commutes.”

Moore had written his own white paper in 2010, on the subject of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircrafts–which piqued Uber’s attention.

Uber Elevate hopes to create flying cars that it will deploy from “vertiports” throughout a city, delivering commuters home from their city offices. The range of the vehicles would be between 50-100 miles, and they could be recharged. Moore told Bloomberg News that he sees these aircraft as becoming a reality in one to three years, although he sees human pilots remaining at the helm in the immediate future.

There are some major hurdles to overcome in the development of flying cars, including certification, battery life, safety, and air traffic control. Even after these issues have been solved, the cost, emissions, training, and infrastructure will also make the reality of these vehicles difficult to achieve–and these are all issues that Uber is attempting to address.

Uber Elevate isn’t the only program to address autonomous transport. Google co-founder Larry Page has invested heavily in this area, with his startups Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk. Airbus has the Vahana project, hoping to launch in 2021. And roughly a dozen other companies are working on prototypes in this space.

Sanjiv Singh is a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University and editor in chief of the Journal of Field Robotics. As CEO and co-founder of Near Earth Autonomy, he’s working in this area as well. Singh knows Moore, who he says “has a broad view of the technologies needed for implementing Uber’s vision,” and “will be a great asset” to the company.

SEE: Our autonomous future: How driverless cars will be the first robots we learn to trust (TechRepublic)

Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University, said she does not think the move will give Uber “any competitive advantage.” And since Uber isn’t developing the core technology itself, she sees its role, mostly, as a “cheerleader…but that is an important role!” Cummings said that she would be more impressed by seeing Uber hire Administrator Michael Huerta from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). “He would be the person I would want to hire,” she said.

There is no question that Uber is making a statement by investing in driverless aircraft. The tech giant has become a big player in the driverless space, when, in September 2016, it brought driverless cars to the public with its Pittsburgh fleet. And it recently has been pushing the boundaries of the law, butting heads with California regulators, who called its driverless fleet in San Francisco “illegal” just a week after launch, forcing Uber to bring its test fleet to Arizona instead.

The newest announcement seems to place Uber, at least in the public eye, as a key innovator in transportation.

“These tech companies are determined to make self-driving cars seem boring by comparison!” said Bryant Walker Smith, associate professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert in the legal implications of autonomous driving. “We’re at the beginning of this technological curve, where companies are competing for public attention before they’ve figured out their role in this potential market.”

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Uber has hired NASA engineer Mark Moore as director of engineering for aviation for Uber Elevate, an initiative to develop short-range flying cars to aid urban transport.
  2. Uber is not the only company to enter this space. Google’s Larry Page has two startups in the area, and Airbus has the Vahana project.
  3. Moore sees these vehicles as becoming a reality in the next three years, although he believes that human operators will be required in the near-term.

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