Google founder plans autonomous flying taxis

Larry Page-backed Kitty Hawk project aims to fly in New Zealand this year

There has been much talk of so-called flying cars in recent months, with companies as big as Airbus claiming that they're working on prototypes of advanced, autonomous, personalised air transport. Well, the journey from sci-fi to your wifi just took a giant leap with the announcement by New Zealand-based Kitty Hawk aviation that it will seek regulatory approval for its Cora autonomous personal aircraft this year.

Kitty Hawk, named for the strip of sand in North Carolina from which the Wright Brothers first took to the air, is backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, and its Cora aircraft uses 12 small rotors to take off vertically like a helicopter, before switching to level flight powered by a single propellor at the back. Half-helicopter, half-aeroplane (it has wings too), and all-autonomous, the Cora is designed to fly at speeds of up to 180km/h for about 100km before it needs to land and recharge.

The company is being run by another Google alumnus, Sebastian Thrun, who was previously head of development for Google's autonomous car systems. The plan, presumably, is to beat the likes of Uber and Airbus into providing on-demand personal air transport.

Kitty Hawk said in a statement that its Cora aircraft has “the potential to take off from a rooftop and hop across a city. To transform a parking lot into an airpad in your neighbourhood. You wouldn’t have to know anything about flying a plane. Cora could fly for you. And it would be all-electric, helping to build a sustainable world.” It’s designed to be “an aircraft so personal it could weave the freedom of flight into our daily lives”.


Renewable energy

Basing in New Zealand appears to be a critical part of the plan for Kitty Hawk. The autonomous aircraft maker claims that New Zealand has about 80 per cent provision of renewable energy for its electricity supply, which fits in with the aircraft's environmental message, and that the New Zealand authorities were very receptive to working with Kitty Hawk on the regulatory aspects of putting a computer-controlled mini-helicopter into public service.

Fred Reid, a senior member of the Cora team, said: "We had no idea what to expect. They could have laughed us out of the room. We were pitching something that sounded like science fiction."

Dr Peter Crabtree of New Zealand's ministry of business, innovation and employment said he saw the opportunity immediately. "In New Zealand, we know we can't keep using the same old approaches to meet our future challenges. We saw Cora's potential as a sustainable, efficient and transformative technology that can enrich people's lives, not only in New Zealand, but ultimately the whole world."

Mr Page and his Kitty Hawk team won’t have things all their own way, though. Uber is continuing to develop its flying taxi tech, and Airbus claims that it will have a prototype in the air by December of this year, prior to a proposed in-service date of 2023.

"With this concept and the right approach, you can deliver an opportunity in cities," Marius Bebesel, head of the urban air mobility project for Airbus, said. "This is the first step for us, showing that the business models are working. Then the next steps I would say would be the technical milestones, such as electrification, to reduce the costs."


And if you want proof that flying taxis really are cars, in a way, Japanese car-making giant Toyota is also working on the same technology. Toyota has invested the money in a start-up firm called Cartivator, but that company is itself composed entirely of Toyota employees, working together on flying car concepts since 2012, using online crowdfunding. Speaking to Nikkei Asian Review, Toyota chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada said: "Things will not progress if you wait and provide money only when the technology is ready."

Currently, Carviator is a weekend and spare time project of this group of Toyota engineers, working out of an old-school building in Aichi Prefecture, but they have already demonstrated a one-fifth scale model of the flying car making low-level prototype flights. The plan is to have some kind of proof-of-concept prototype to show off at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020.

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring