Larry Page, co-founder of Google and currently the CEO of its parent company, Alphabet, personally funded the flying car start-up, which on Tuesday announced that it had been conducting surreptitious tests on self-flying aircraft in New Zealand since late last year.
Sebastian Thrun – the man behind Google’s self-driving car division Google X and founder of online education service Udacity – is at the helm at Kitty Hawk.
The California-based company has been testing its versatile Cora aircraft for a flying taxi service in New Zealand, which it hopes will be operational in the not too distant future.
Obviously, Page and Thrun will be looking to beat Uber and others to the punch, with everything to gain if it did manage to achieve that target.
While the Cora can take-off and touch down like a helicopter using its VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) capabilities, it flies like a plane once airborne, giving it the versatility that can well prove to be the game-changer in the flying taxi race.
The New Zealand endeavor was unveiled by the country’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. Fred Reid, CEO of Zephyr Airworks, which manages Kitty Hawk’s New Zealand operations, was also present.
Kitty Hawk, which is reportedly developing an Uber-like hailing app for its future air taxi network in NZ, is looking to revolutionize the way people commute, and the company is investing every resource at its disposal, including years of R&D, toward that end.
“Kitty Hawk’s mission is to completely change the way we get around. We succeed if everyone chooses to fly every day,” Thrun said. “With our prototype air taxi Cora, we are applying eight years of research and development into an entirely new way to commute.”
“Cora rises like a helicopter and flies like a plane, eliminating the need for a runway and creating the possibility of taking off from places like rooftops,” the company says on its website. “Cora will use self-flying software combined with human oversight to make flying possible for people without training.”
“I’m really thrilled to see New Zealand endorsed as a place where exciting companies want to do business,” Ms. Ardern said.
“Innovation is in our DNA — Kiwis love a challenge and pushing the envelope and I think it’s that spirit that resonates with innovators around the world.”
In an email to the NYT, the New Zealand prime minister said that her country’s decision to partner with Kitty Hawk was to announce to the world that the country’s “doors are open for people with great ideas who want to turn them into reality.” She goes on to say that the nation has an “ambitious target” of becoming “net carbon zero by 2050,” and that environment-friendly endeavors like the Cora project would go a long way in realizing that carbon-free dream.
This is not the first time Kitty Hawk has worked secretly on a flying car, having run similar tests in relative secrecy on its Flyer prototype before announcing it in April 2017.
While the superlight, single-passenger Flyer, powered by eight electric rotors, is designed for flight only over water, the Cora is a more complex vehicle with a wingspan of 11 meters (36 feet) and a 62-mile range.
Its twelve independent rotors provide enough power for the Cora to lift off vertically with its maximum capacity of two passengers, its VTOL capability eliminating the need for a runway, while its single propeller flies the vehicle after it transitions to the plane mode,
The Cora can fly at altitudes ranging from 150 meters to 900 meters and reach a top speed of about 180 kph.
“Vertical take-off and then changing to winged-flight is quite a feat of engineering,” Steve Wright, an associate professor in aerospace engineering at the University of the West of England told BBC.
“We have been doing it for a long time but that doesn’t stop it being hard. Doing it with batteries is even more impressive,” he said, adding that innovation was being impeded by battery technology.
“For 150 years engineers have been spoiled by hydrocarbons – petrol and oil – because they stuff a huge amount of energy into a small space,” said the professor.
“Everyone would dearly love a battery that could store 10 or 15 times as much charge,” he added. “That’s why Cora has a fairly short range but that’s fine – there will be a good market for it in the crowded mega-cities of the future.”
With Airbus and Uber as well as smaller players like Lilium, Joby, and Terrafugia also in the race to conquer the city skies of the future with their airborne versions, it remains to be seen who separates who makes it to the finish line first.