A flying car start-up backed by Google founder Larry Page has been secretly testing an electric autonomous aircraft for several months in New Zealand, the company revealed on Tuesday.
Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, unveiled the venture on Tuesday alongside Fred Reid, chief executive of Zephyr Airworks, Kitty Hawk’s operator in the country.
“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 said on its website. “Cora will use self-flying software combined with human oversight to make flying possible for people without training.”
A confluence of technologies including electric motors and batteries, autonomous navigation systems and even consumer drones has drawn companies including Uber and Airbus to invest in vehicles that can fly themselves, removing the need for a trained pilot to be on board. The capability for “vertical take-off and landing” (VTOL) promises to open transportation options, from commuter services to drone deliveries.
Kitty Hawk, which is named after the location of the Wright brothers’ early flight trials, has been funded by Mr Page personally, outside the Alphabet group.
Led by Sebastian Thrun, who is also a founder of Google’s self-driving car programme and online education service Udacity, Kitty Hawk operated largely in secret until April 2017, when it unveiled a prototype of its Flyer — a single-person ultralight aircraft powered by eight electric rotors.
The Flyer is designed to be used only over water and sold to private individuals. Cora is a more ambitious vehicle, with 12 independent rotors capable of carrying two people at heights of between 150 metres and 900 metres. With a range of 100 kilometres and a top speed of 177kph, Cora has three independent flight-computers to ensure back up in the event of a failure.
“Kitty Hawk’s mission is to completely change the way we get around. We succeed if everyone chooses to fly every day,” said Mr Thrun. “With our prototype air taxi Cora, we are applying eight years of research and development into an entirely new way to commute.”
Kitty Hawk envisages eventually operating a service “similar to an airline or a rideshare”. The company has received an “experimental airworthiness certificate” for Cora in New Zealand and the US. The company would not comment further on its plans or tests in the US market.
New Zealand is positioning itself as a global hub for research and development, particularly in the aerospace sector. Martin Jetpack, which describes itself as the developer of the world’s first commercial jetpack, is based in Christchurch. Rocket Lab, a company founded Peter Beck, a New Zealand inventor, recently blasted three satellites into orbit from a private launch pad based on an 3,200 hectare sheep and cattle farm.
“I’m really thrilled to see New Zealand endorsed as a place where exciting companies want to do business,” said Ms Ardern. “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.”
Long dreamt of in science fiction, flying cars are now seeing a wave of investment to become a reality. Uber has formed a dedicated division called Elevate that plans to demonstrate flying vehicles by 2020 in Dubai and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, in partnership with aerospace companies such as Embraer and Pipistrel.
Last month, Airbus’s Silicon Valley-based division A3 said its Vahana prototype had completed its first test flight. Smaller start-ups targeting pilotless passenger aircraft include Lilium, Joby and Terrafugia. Last September, Munich-based Lilium raised $90m from Tencent and venture firms including Niklas Zennstrom’s Atomico and Evan Williams’ Obvious Ventures.