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Bell Helicopter, Embraer partner with Uber for electric VTOL taxis

Bell Helicopter and Embraer on 25 April separately announced that each will partner with ride-sharing provider Uber to develop hybrid- or all-electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles to provide short-range transport within urban centres.

Bell announced that it will begin development of hybrid-electric VTOL taxi designs in the near-term, with a long-term goal to develop a fully electric vehicle.

Despite a history as a fixed-wing aircraft developer, Embraer’s Business Innovation Center in Melbourne, Florida, also announced a preliminary partnership with Uber to explore the development of small electric VTOL aircraft for short commutes.

The collaborations were unveiled during the Uber Elevate Summit in Dallas, Texas, which also drew representatives from the general aviation industry. Mooney Aircraft teamed up with Carter Aviation to propose another electric VTOL vehicle.

By hosting the summate event, Uber revealed the scope of its ambitions for driving innovation in electric-powered flight.

In recent years, Uber has expanded its ride-sharing model from purely cars to offering charter flights in helicopters during major events, such as the Olympics.

But the technology company is now recruiting help from inside and outside the aerospace industry to develop efficient, VTOL vehicles, which can fly above road traffic in crowded urban centres to move customers faster.

Neither Bell or Embraer have acknowledged publicly interest in electric VTOL aircraft in the past. Meanwhile, Airbus’s Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm A3 announced plans last year develop a small electric taxi under Project Vahana. Two weeks before the Uber summit, Boeing announced a collaboration with JetBlue Venture Capital Partners and Kirkland, Washington-based start-up Zenum Aero, which is also focused on developing small and regional-jet sized hybrid-electric aircraft.

Some progress in electric flight is already being made. German start-up Lillium on 20 April flew a proof-of-concept vehicle for an electric-powered light aircraft, featuring electric fans embedded in a tilting wing and canards.

Electric-powered aerial taxis still face an array of technological and legal obstacles. The energy density of the most advanced lithium batteries remains well below hydrocarbons. The reliability and efficiency of power generation and distribution systems also remains unproven.

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