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Airtaxi 'Cora' at your service

Konstantin Sheiko
March 13, 2018

Since October last year, a series of “stealth” test flights were conducted over the South Island of New Zealand, by a company personally financed by Larry Page, the co-founder of Google and now the chief executive of Google’s parent, Alphabet. The company, known as Kitty Hawk and run by Sebastian Thrun, who helped start Google’s autonomous car unit as the director of Google X, has been testing a new kind of fully electric, self-piloting flying taxi.

The vehicle looks like a cross between a small plane and a drone, with a series of small rotor blades along each wing, allowing it to take off like a helicopter and then fly like a plane. To those on the ground, it has always been unclear whether there was a pilot aboard.

Before everyone gets too excited and nervous about this ‘Back to the Future’ like future, it must be mentioned that virtually every prediction about how quickly air taxis would arrive has been wrong. Just last year, Dubai said EHang would begin operating an autonomous flying taxi service last July, but it never happened. Uber is also planning to have a host of flying taxis at some point. Having Mr. Page and his research resources, as a part of the race toward the wheelless future is a serious indicator that it will take place – currently, the question is not ‘if, but ‘when’.

The planes have operated in New Zealand in what has been a covert project, under a company called Zephyr Airworks. However, now that project is about to go public. Today, Mr. Page’s company, and the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, will announce they have reached an agreement to test Kitty Hawk’s autonomous planes as part of an official certification process. The hope is that it will lead to a commercial network of flying taxis in New Zealand in as soon as three years. 

The move is a big step forward in the commercialization of this technology, which even the most optimistic enthusiasts had recently bet would take another decade to achieve. The decision to embrace the commercial use of flying taxis offers New Zealand an opportunity to leapfrog many developed countries in this area, and perhaps give it a head start over Silicon Valley, where much of the most innovative work has been taking place. 

Ms. Ardern said the decision to work with Kitty Hawk was “about sending the message to the world that our doors are open for people with great ideas who want to turn them into reality.” She added, “We’ve got an ambitious target in New Zealand of being net carbon zero by 2050,” and given that the Kitty Hawk vehicle is fully electric, “exciting projects like this are part of how we make that happen.” 

Back in the United States, the move stands as a major challenge for the US regulators, in particular, the Federal Aviation Administration. While the F.A.A. allows test flights of autonomous vehicles, there is no path to certify and commercialize them despite a constant stream of headlines about efforts from Uber, Airbus, and others. Thus far, the agency, which oversees much busier skies than New Zealand and has long been underfunded, has been too slow to adopt rules for new technologies. 

Other countries, mostly in the Middle East and Africa, have been more aggressive about allowing unmanned flights and appear willing to be some of the first places where this technology will be used. But those countries have never been seen as models for aviation regulators in the rest of the developed world. New Zealand, on the other hand, has long been viewed as having a thoughtful and safety-conscious regulatory regime. That means that the rules it develops may become a template for other nations, including the United States. 

A number of rival companies have been laying the groundwork for air taxis. In November, Boeing acquired Aurora Flight Sciences. Airbus made an investment two weeks ago in Blade, an aviation start-up in New York. Dubai formed a partnership with a Chinese company, EHang. And of course Uber has an entire division called Uber Elevate. The mystery of what has been going on in New Zealand has quietly created a stir among those in the know. Kitty Hawk has been in discussions, under a nondisclosure agreement, with regulators there for the past 18 months. 

The opportunity to use New Zealand as the first place to commercialize the autonomous taxi service is a step-change in the advancement of the sector. Kitty Hawk is already working on an app that would allow customers to hail one of its air taxis. The aircraft, known as Cora, has a wingspan of 36 feet with a dozen rotors all powered by batteries. It can fly about 62 miles and carry two passengers. The plan, at least for now, is not for Kitty Hawk to sell the vehicles - it wants to own and operate a network of them itself.