High concept: If flying vehicles take off, will engineers catch up?
Contrary to the predictions of the 1980s sci-fi trilogy “Back to the Future,” flying vehicles have not yet become an everyday mode of transportation.
But East Pennsboro-based infrastructure design and planning firm Gannett Fleming Inc. is at the forefront of an effort - led by ridesharing giant Uber - to deploy flying taxis in the skies of major cities like Los Angeles and Dallas by 2023.
As with all modes of transportation, flying vehicles need infrastructure to support them. That’s where Gannett Fleming comes in.
In May, at a summit organized by Uber, Gannett Fleming revealed its design for a Skyport, the passenger hubs for what are being called electric vertical take-off landing vehicles, or EVTOLs, which Uber is working with aerospace companies to develop.
It’s basically an airport for flying taxis.
Gannett Fleming was one of about 25 firms Uber approached in January to come up with Skyport concepts. The firm is now one of six finalists moving forward in the design process, said Ted Osborne, Gannett Fleming’s principal architect.
A team of 15 to 20 Gannett Fleming employees from offices and divisions around the country worked together to design the Skyport, Osborne said, from elevator experts to transportation and structural engineers.
“We basically called in our thought leaders from wherever we could round them up,” said Osborne, who is based in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Gannett Fleming’s Skyport features four modular “paws” with one landing spot and three smaller circular pads for offloading and onloading. If constructed, it could process over 200 vehicles per hour, Osborne said. Other features in the proposed design include a transparent concrete landing pad outfitted with solar panels to charge the EVTOLs, other sustainable building materials and a ground floor business space, all on one city block.
Unlike other Skyport designs, one of which featured towering heights that would take years to construct, Osborne said, “ours can be built tomorrow … It could be developed on an existing rooftop … or it could be its own building.”
Although no tangible products have been released to the public yet and flying vehicle technology and infrastructure is largely still in the design stage, Osborne believes Uber’s timeline - and Gannett Fleming’s part in it - are realistic.
As populations in cities grow and roads become more congested, flying vehicles, especially ones that are electric and self-driving, make sense as a viable alternative to ground travel, Osborne said.
He wasn’t always so optimistic, though. “If you would’ve asked me a year ago, I would’ve said no,” Osborne said. Now, after the Uber summit in May, he is confident that Uber intends to make good on its flying-vehicle plans and is energized that Gannett Fleming has come this far in the process.
Gannett Fleming’s involvement in Uber’s plans fits in with the company’s ideals.
“By improving transportation systems, it absolutely lines up with what we want to do as an innovative firm,” Osborne said. Sustainability is one of Gannett Fleming’s core principles, too, Osborne said.
Gannett Fleming has more than 60 offices around the world and reported $410 million in revenue in 2017, up from $388.18 million in 2016.
For now, Gannett Fleming is at the mercy of Uber as it works through regulatory processes with the Federal Aviation Administration.
But that doesn’t mean Osborne and the Skyport team at Gannett Fleming are sitting around twiddling their thumbs.
“One of the things that came out of the Uber summit is that we made contacts with a lot of different companies that are involved one way or another in this [flying vehicle] arena,” Osborne said. He added that major aircraft manufacturers like Boeing are racing to build a functional, safe EVTOL for Uber, so it’s clear to Osborne that companies are funneling money into the development of this technology and infrastructure.
“Call it ‘The Jetsons’ … but now it’s becoming real, and there are a lot of people trying to figure out how to get into it,” Osborne said.
As a result of its involvement with Skyport, Osborne said, Gannett Fleming “will be thought of as a thought leader.”