NASA: Wichita could play key role in developing unpiloted aircraft to fly around cities

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine says Wichita could be the Detroit of urban air mobility, mass-producing small, unpiloted aircraft equipped to fly people and cargo across cities.

Speaking Monday morning at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Bridenstine said developing such crafts is a top aeronautics priority for the U.S.

“What are the breakthrough technologies that are going to transform the way that people in the United States of America move around cities?” Bridenstine asked.

“The idea that you could get in a vehicle on one side of town and that vehicle would elevate you to another side of town and drop you off — urban air mobility.”

Such capabilities would also allow companies like Amazon and FedEx to expedite the delivery of packages, Bridenstine said.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, left, introduced NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing held at the National Center for Aviation Training. Bridenstine said mass-producing small, unpiloted aircraft equipped to fly people and cargo across cities is a top aeronautics priority for the U.S. (July 22, 2019) Jaime Green The Wichita Eagle

He said Wichita is uniquely positioned to develop the carbon composites and other new materials needed to mass-produce such electric aircraft within 15 to 25 years.

“It just so happens that here at NIAR (the National Institute for Aviation Research) at Wichita State University, with partnership with industry and partnership with the U.S. government, there is a cluster of technological capability right here that is going to enable that mass production,” Bridenstine said.

“Wichita could very well be the Detroit of urban air mobility.”

He went on to clarify that he means the Detroit of “maybe 20 years ago.”

Speaking after Bridenstine’s address, NIAR Executive Director John Tomblin said Wichita should embrace the prospect of becoming the manufacturing hub for such crafts.

“Think of the equivalent of the car industry — having that in Wichita and being able to employ that amount of people to build those structures is key,” Tomblin said. “If it ever takes off, we want to be the place that people think about.”

Sen. Jerry Moran, who invited Bridenstine to the event, recently co-sponsored the bipartisan Aeronautics Innovation Act, which aims to help boost research and development in the aeronautics industry.

To bring about a reality where people could commute across the city on unpiloted aircrafts, Bridenstine said vehicle providers will need to partner with major wireless network providers.

“When we create these highways in the sky, what are we talking about? We’re talking about using cell towers to go from one side of town to another side of town,” Bridenstine said.

He said the U.S. has already dedicated more than $1 billion to urban air mobility and that the investment will be ramped up in coming years.

The technology for unpiloted urban aircraft is coming, Tomblin said. The only thing in question is the timeline.

“I think it’s going to happen,” he said. “Whether it happens in my lifetime or my son’s, I don’t know.”

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