At Uber’s 2nd Annual Elevate Summit, which took place this past May in Los Angeles, over 700 industry leaders in aviation and transportation came together to discuss the future of urban air transport. Conference-goers witnessed the unveiling of airport concepts designed by the six finalists in Uber’s invited airport design competition. These airports, dubbed “skyports,” will serve as the main transportation hubs in Uber’s proposed electric VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft network. By utilizing three-dimensional airspace, Uber’s plans for on-demand aviation are intended to alleviate ground transportation congestion in major cities around the world.
Uber’s brief for the competition called on submissions to accommodate 4,000 passengers per hour within a three-acre footprint. Each skyport must meet the noise and environmental standards of the city in which it is located, with as little intrusion as possible on nearby communities. Because the aircrafts themselves are electric, charging ports are required in the design plan. Uber is working with aviation firms and graduate students from ArtCenter College of Design and Savannah College of Art and Design to create the electric VTOL aircraft.
Four Texas-based firms revealed their designs at the summit: BOKA Powell, Corgan, Beck, and Humphreys & Partners. Pickard Chilton, based in Connecticut, and Gannett Fleming from Pennsylvania made up the rest of the six finalists. While most of the plans are radically unique, many share some of the same characteristics, like considerations for sustainability and emphasis on scalability.
Since Uber’s Skyports are intended to be situated in busy metropolitan areas, spatial considerations were incorporated into several firms’ designs. Beck, Corgan, Humphreys & Partners, and Pickard Chilton created raised structures that sit over existing highways and parking lots, aiming to “repurpose existing and familiar infrastructure.” A modular design was another common adaptation to the spatial requirements; Gannett Fleming, Corgan, and Pickard Chilton designed Skyport plans based on modular components that can be replicated and stacked as necessary to scale up or down.
Several firms took inspiration from organic sources. Beck and Humphreys & Partners created designs inspired by bee colonies; Beck’s “Hive” incorporates the hexagonal shape that exists in the honeycomb in beehive, while Humphreys and Partners’ Skyport mimics the cylindrical shape of the beehive itself. Both firms used bee colonies as a metaphor for the busy activity of a transportation hub. Living walls were another organic element that appeared in multiple designs, including the plans of Humphreys & Partners, BOKA Powell, and Gannett Fleming.
Given that Uber Elevate aims to implement a new mass-scale form of urban transportation, environmental concerns were central to many Skyport plans. Gannett Fleming, BOKA Powell, and Humphreys & Partners emphasized sustainability in their designs. All three firms highlighted the use of photovoltaic receptors for solar energy, daylighting techniques to reduce the need for artificial lighting, and naturally ventilated, open-air spaces that minimize energy consumption. Humphreys & Partners discussed a two-layer wall in its beehive-shaped Skyport design: an outer green wall and an inner wall made of Bio-Concrete (concrete and limestone-producing bacteria) to aid in noise reduction, air filtration, and CO2 absorption.
Uber announced plans to begin electric VTOL aircraft flight demonstrations in 2020. Uber Elevate’s commercial operations are set to begin in 2023 in three test cities: Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and Dubai.
Mackie Kellen is a student at UT-Austin.