| Move over rideshare! Get the hail out of the way taxicabs! Remember those jetpacks we were all promised? If an Austin startup has its way, by this time next year drones could be the newest form of alternative transportation in nation's fastest growing city.
A new startup called SkyWaze is the brainchild of entrepreneur Zachary Morris, who co-founded the company while working on another tech project at Austin's Capital Factory.
The concept, still in Beta testing, is simple, and essentially the opposite of what Amazon proposed last year. Instead of delivering packages to your door, SkyWaze plans to deliver you anywhere within a 10 mile radius of downtown Austin. Set your destination with your smartphone app and soon your air chariot will arrive. Morris says he got the idea when friends who were visiting town for SXSW could not hail a cab and were too far out for pedicabs.
Find out which Shark Tank host is financially backing SkyWaze below the jump...
"A light bulb went off. Our limited road infrastructure gets taken over during major events like SXSW, but the way this town is growing, taking to the air seems a bit obvious now. Even if we do expand rail, that could take years to put a dent in our traffic problem. This is an innovative solution for an innovative town. We also got lucky to have financial backers who understand the technology industry and have connections to all the resources we need to be online by SXSW 2015."
The first 100,000 rides or first year of operation will be heavily subsidized by its investors and will initially cost an average user about $20 a ride. That price is expected to fall dramatically after the success of the "pilot program" is proven.
SkyWaze's chief financial backer is Mark Cuban, founder of Yahoo!, and owner of the Dallas Mavericks. Cuban, who lives in Dallas, also hosts the popular entrepreneurial show Shark Tank, and said in a statement that SkyWaze represents the future of transportation far beyond Austin.
"As someone who lives in bustling metropolis I see a lot of gridlock. We need to get America moving again and we can't sit around waiting for the government to decide to build more or better roads. As with my other projects, I've taken what seems like a problem and turned into a giant investment opportunity. SkyWaze definitely represents the future. There are a lot issues we still have to work out, but the technology is there. At this point we are more concerned with red tape than anything else."
That's a valid concern. Austin has seen other rideshare startups come and go, some legal, some not so much. SideCar a project of Google was given the boot last year after thumbing its nose at City regulators. Lyft and Uber have faced similar challenges. Morris says he thinks SkyWaze is a different beast altogether.
"Many of the rideshare companies that have tried to operate in Austin before have an issue with their drivers not being licensed to take fares, but our aerial vehicles don't have drivers so this isn't an issue for us. Our main concern is simply the safety of our passengers, and that's why we will spend the next year beta testing our models for every imaginable scenario."
Morris says the Federal Aviation Administration, not the City Council is the government agency they are most concerned about. "We have been working with the FAA since March to come up with a set of guidelines, for flight paths and height limitations." He says the drones which are actually called "quadrotors" have double-failsafe features that prevent them from crashing when they run out of power or when weather conditions become unmanageable. Each vehicle is equipped with a harness, helmet and a bucket seat called a "bell." Morris says initial tests prove it's safe and suspects many folks will look at their watch in a pinch and think, "Its alright, 'cause I'll be saved by the bell." He added, "Austin is the perfect city to debut this technology because with over 300 days of sunshine a year we should have no problem being a reliable alternative to getting around town."
As for operations, each of the initial 20 vehicles will be "piloted" from a remote location. Morris would not say where that location was, or even if it is in Austin. The bottom line he says is that, "the next phase of this company will see these quadrotors fly themselves. The technology is already there but mainly right now our goal is getting up and running while easing safety concerns of regulators."
Austin City Councilman Mike Martinez says he loves the idea "in theory."
"Austin is a great town full of creative people, which is one of the reasons I moved here. But, my job as Councilman and Chair of CapMetro is to make sure that our citizens have safe and reliable transportation options -- so I'm a little concerned. Personally, I live in East Austin and getting to City Hall can be a nightmare some days, so if SkyWaze is listening I'll say this, I'd be a lot less skeptical if I got to try it for myself, like every Thursday."
In so many waze, eh hem, ways, Austin is leading the nation and one of those is in traffic problems, now we will see if it can also be a leader in traffic solutions.
You can follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.
This is an April Fools' Day post. Unfortunately, it is not real. But imagine if it were!