Uber Air takes one software step toward the sky

Tomorrow's flying Uber vehicles will rely on Cesium's open-source 3D geospatial software for its in-air "driving."

Uber Air flying taxi service to be trialled in Melbourne Telstra, Macquarie, Westfield-operator Scentre Group, and Melbourne Airport to help the Silicon Valley darling launch a third Uber Air pilot city and the first outside of the United States.

"Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads," said Doc Brown in Back to the Future. We're not there yet, but Uber's plans to bring self-piloting, ride-sharing "flying cars" took one step closer to reality by incorporating a new open-source 3D geospatial initiative from Cesium. This will help Uber's futuristic electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft navigate across the skies using 3D geospatial data. 

Cesium engineering teams are working with Uber to add support for 3D Tiles to Uber's open-source geospatial visualization frameworks, loaders.gl and deck.gl. Cesium created 3D as an open-standard format in 2015. It's designed for streaming massive heterogeneous 3D geospatial datasets. It enables the Hierarchical Level of Detail (HLOD) so that only visible tiles are streamed. In an interesting case of gaming meets the real world, this concept comes from the Unreal Engine. These will enable deck.gl to stream city-level, massive 3D geospatial datasets and point clouds in real-time. 

So, when you get onboard your inexpensive flying Uber in 2022, this will give the vehicle the information it needs to safely go from one place to another. Think of it as the foundation for Google Maps in the sky, and you won't be far off.  

"Initial point clouds of Melbourne, Australia, which is an Uber Air international launch city, clock in around an astounding 355 million data points," said Ib Green, Uber's Staff Engineer for Core Visualization, in a statement "With 3D Tiles and Cesium ion, we can better visualize the cities we serve and improve transportation experiences across our platform." 

To fly in cities, Uber must deal with huge datasets. With the Cesium code, the Uber Visualization team hopes to render 3D  datasets quickly and seamlessly. "We created 3D Tiles to help companies like Uber make their massive 3D geospatial datasets more useful and accessible," said Cesium CEO Patrick Cozzi in a statement. "We're proud to collaborate with the Uber Engineering team to expand the 3D Tiles ecosystem with this open-source initiative."

If all goes well, Uber Air will first fly experimentally in Dallas-Fort Worth/Frisco Texas, LA, and Melbourne in 2020. The plan then is to make commercially available to riders in 2023.

These next-generation aircraft are being developed with several experienced aircraft manufacturers. This includes Aurora Flight Sciences (now a Boeing subsidiary), Pipistrel Aircraft, Embraer, Bell, Karem Aircraft, and Jaunt. Uber has also signed two Space Act Agreements with NASA. These are to support the development of new Unmanned Traffic Management concepts and Unmanned Aerial Systems and to explore Urban Air Mobility concepts and technologies. 

I'm not holding my breath that I'll be calling an Uber Air helicopter to my house anytime soon. After all, Uber is still bleeding red-ink.

Leaving aside the technical difficulties of creating a radically new kind of aircraft with an AI self-flying robot pilot, getting Uber Air off the ground will cost hundreds of millions. Still, for the time being, the company wants to get its ride-sharing program into the air and at least one major software step appears to be taking off.

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