Uber Copter Launches "Version 0.1" Of Elevate's Aerial Ambitions

Uber wants to make autonomous electric VTOL the next big thing in mobility, but in the meantime it has helicopters.

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When the autonomous electric VTOL concept started getting media attention and venture capital funding, I didn't get it. To be honest, I still don't completely get it. Helicopters already exist, my thinking went, so why create oversized drones instead of just making helicopters cheaper?

My stubborn pragmatism seems to have caught up with the now-publicly-traded Uber, which has taken a tiny step toward its Uber Elevate dreams by launching a helicopter service from downtown Manhattan to JFK airport. Called Uber Copter, the service uses an existing licensed air carrier called HeliFlight to make the 8 minute flight from Lower Manhattan to JFK. You can book up to five days in advance, or try to catch one on the fly, and if you live within a designated zone (south of Houston Street and "select areas with access to the West Side Highway" your booking will get you from your door to your terminal using a combination of Uber ride hailing and the Copter service in a single go.

If that sounds like Uber simply integrated an existing helicopter flight provider into its existing ride hailing platform, you're basically right. But because Uber still has a futuristic vision of passenger drones to sell, it's spinning the service as a pilot program that will "generate learnings for a future all-electric Uber Air ride-sharing network." What those learnings are, specifically, still isn't quite clear beyond Uber Elevate head Eric Allison's vague quote to Vogue, calling Uber Copter "version 0.1" of Elevate. That said, a real service might help justify some of Elevate's speculative losses and the idea of a future electric air service might mitigate some of the guilt associated with using almost an entire small car's tank worth of gas to get to JFK.

The price of a flight, between $200 and $225, is roughly in line with what other services charge for a flight from Lower Manhattan to JFK so it seems that Uber isn't making much money on the service. On the other hand you do get rides to and from the takeoff and landing pads, so Uber is probably eating the cost of those rides in order to make the service more attractive. Other services do offer first-time promotional rates as low as $99 for Gotham Air and $120 for Blade for the same flight, so if you're looking for a one-time splurge you're better off looking at those established services.

 Meanwhile, Uber isn't the only company gunning for an electric VTOL future. Hyundai Motor Group just launched an Urban Air Mobility Division, joining the some 200 electric VTOL aircraft programs in development around the world. With so much money being poured into the space, it probably is just a matter of time before electric mobility drones start become a reality... but if we're learning anything from autonomous cars, we should probably be patient as new technologies can take longer than you think to not only reach maturity but find a economically sustainable niche.