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Age of the flying taxicab

Uber and NASA team up to develop an airborne taxi system


A rendering of Uber’s proposed flying taxi Uber

Age of the flying taxicab
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Flying cars used to be the stuff of science fiction and The Jetsons. But more and more companies, including major aircraft firms such as Boeing and Airbus, are developing plans for personal aerial transport vehicles to replace cars. When a highly respected organization such as NASA gets involved in such projects, skeptics may sit up and take notice.

Last month Jeff Holden, the chief product officer at Uber, announced his company had signed an agreement with NASA to create a new air traffic control system designed to manage the fleets of autonomous flying taxis Uber plans to develop under its project Elevate.

Holden also announced that the city of Los Angeles will join Dubai and Dallas-Fort Worth as metro areas where Uber hopes to launch its aerial taxi service by 2020, according to The Verge.

“It’s one of the most congested cities in the world today,” Holden said of LA during his announcement. “They essentially have no mass transit infrastructure. This type of approach allows us to very inexpensively deploy a mass transit method that actually doesn’t make traffic worse.”

Uber envisions a low-cost air taxi service called “UberAir” that would move “tens of thousands” of flights per day in each city using electric—and potentially autonomous—vertical takeoff and landing aircraft launched from rooftop “skyports.” (The company has yet to build its flying taxis or develop the needed skyports, though.)

NASA, already working on an air traffic control system for small drones, would apply its research to develop a system for managing a potentially huge volume of air traffic over major metropolitan areas.

“UberAir will be performing far more flights on a daily basis than has ever been done before,” Holden said in a statement. “Doing this safely and efficiently is going to require a foundational change in airspace management technologies.”

Bionic sights

A new, tiny implantable chip about to undergo clinical trials in France could restore vision for some of the millions of older adults who suffer from age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

In October, French regulators greenlighted trials of the bionic device. The trials will involve placing a 2-millimeter chip just under the retinas of five individuals with an advanced type of retinal disease called dry AMD, according to IEEE Spectrum. This is the first time such an approach has been used to treat dry AMD, a disease for which there is currently no treatment.

Developed by French company Pixium Vision, the wireless, 378-electrode chip, called PRIMA, is implanted behind the retina in a short, 90-minute operation. Users wear a pair of camera-equipped glasses that wirelessly transmit images to a small pocket computer, which converts them into infrared light signals. Those signals are transmitted back to the glasses, which send the light beam to the implanted PRIMA chip. The chip’s job is to convert the signals into electrical current, stimulating nearby cells and reopening the communication path to the optic nerve and the brain that was closed because of the retinal disease.

AMD is the leading cause of vision loss in adults over age 50, according to the American Optometric Association. Sufferers typically lose their central field of vision, necessary for reading and other routine activities.

“What people [with AMD] ideally want is to read again and to recognize faces,” Khalid Ishaque, CEO of Pixium, told IEEE Spectrum. The study volunteers must have a very advanced case of dry AMD, with no central vision perception, he said, adding that the first patient will likely receive the implant before the end of the year.


Michael Cochrane Michael is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.

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