Flying taxis as the future of urban transportation may raise some eyebrows, but New Haven, Conn.–based architects Pickard Chilton and global engineering firm Arup are on board. In 2018, Uber announced a design competition for a mega-skyport—a facility capable of handling up to 1,000 five-seat electric helicopters every hour. The catch: It had to fit on a 3-acre site. Pickard Chilton and Arup’s elegant solution caught the eye of the ride-sharing giant, which named it one of eight winners out of several dozen entries.
To accommodate the required number of operations—or takeoffs and landings—the design team calculated that it would need six helipads, with room for 15 additional vehicles prepared for takeoff. To fit everything within the allowed footprint, the team created Sky Tower, a system of stackable helipad modules, each built around moving platforms.
After a vehicle lands on a helipad platform on the topmost level of a Sky Tower module, the entire platform shifts to the side, making way for another platform where another incoming vehicle will land. The platforms cycle continually, conveying each landed craft down to one of the module’s four lower levels, each of which accommodate four individual platforms. Once parked, vehicles are unloaded, serviced, and reloaded. Each platform then raises its vehicle back to the top level of the module for takeoff. Six of those modules, stacked two high and three across, can fit snugly on 3 acres and, moreover, can handle 1,080 takeoffs and landings an hour.
Arup senior airport planner Byron Thurber and the design team envision Sky Tower as part of a network that can transport users from one side of an urban area to another—from, say, central San Francisco to San Jose. “It’s like the old Pan Am helicopter service,” Thurber says, which took passengers from Midtown Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Whereas the price of that service limited clientele to all but the wealthiest, Pickard Chilton and Arup say a Sky Tower network could create enough volume to introduce real economies of scale, making the cost feasible for more travelers—and, in the process, lessen demand on existing, overburdened ground transit.
“I’m not 100-percent sure that this is ever going to happen or this is 100-percent plausible,” said juror James Garrett Jr., AIA, “but I love the fact that we’re thinking forward—we’re dreaming forward—as design professionals.”
Pickard Chilton principal Jon Pickard, FAIA, says that a version of the compact helipad concept may be closer to reality than one might expect. Regulatory hurdles aside, he says, the technology exists to begin building a network of flying taxis and Sky Towers within five years. “This is going to happen,” Pickard says, “and it is going to change our world.”
Project: Uber Sky Tower
Location: Los Angeles
Architect: Pickard Chilton, New Haven, Conn. . Jon Pickard, FAIA (principal); Andrew Swartzell, Jonathan Aprati, AIA (associates)
Structural Engineer: Arup . David Farnsworth (principal)
Aviation Consultant: Arup . Byron Thurber (senior aviation planner), Eglantin Dashi (aviation planner)