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Uber Air shapes as new vehicle for aviation cover

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Uber’s bold Uber Air flying taxi proposition could be treated much like helicopter use by underwriters in the first instance, but technical advancements will open new opportunities for aviation insurers, experts say.

Melbourne is one of three cities selected for a trial and launch of the aerial ride-sharing service.

Uber Elevate, the division of Uber developing the business, plans to begin demonstrator flights in late 2020 before commercial flights begin in 2023.

Passengers will travel in electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft known as eVTOLs, using a network of landing pads called Skyports.

“For now, helicopter insurance is probably the best comparison, because autonomous operations are still some years away,” QBE Aviation Industry Adviser Julian Fraser told insuranceNEWS.com.au.

As long as the program operates under the control of a pilot, insurance for the machine, property and so on would likely be similar to existing cover available for helicopters or planes, he says.

The program is therefore “unlikely to present an immediate and direct opportunity for insurers”, though Mr Fraser believes later iterations will open up “new or additional opportunities for aviation insurers, which will become more apparent as the technology advances”.

“As the program becomes more automated, there will be new insurance risks identified, just as we are seeing with the development of autonomous vehicles, which QBE is supporting trials of, including in Armidale and Coffs Harbour,” he said.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority has already confirmed the list of challenges for Uber is long, pointing to safety certificates that do not yet exist, the proposed airspace being managed by Australian authorities, specialised training for the operators and required infrastructure.

QBE says the impact of adverse weather and ensuring the cyber security of urban air mobility systems are further challenges, as are public perception and acceptance.

Matthew Marino, an aerospace engineer and co-leader of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Team at RMIT, says air traffic density over Melbourne is very low, especially below controlled airspace where commercial aircraft fly.

“In the first instance, there is a lot of sky to populate and I don’t think we are going to have any issues to try to navigate each other around the sky and give each other a lot of space,” Dr Marino told insuranceNEWS.com.au.

“In the future, 10-15 years from now when we see maybe a lot of these in the sky or when we see a lot more drones delivering packages, that’s when it starts to become an issue.”

Dr Marino does not envisage a significant safety risk, because the technology employs multiple motors and propellers, so if one system fails the others take the load.

“You’ve got redundancy built in and the more redundancy you have, the safer the system. I think a safety case can be made and it will be safe enough for people to fly in. The trials will end up telling us that.”

Dr Marino notes Uber’s long-term goal is to run Uber Air using pilotless aircraft, to reduce costs.

“That’s when the insurance implication comes in,” he said. “Without a pilot on board, I am not sure how that fits in with any insurance policy at the moment.”

The main users of the airspace in Melbourne’s CBD at present are tourist, police and ambulance helicopters.