Larry Page-backed flying taxi start-up could beat Uber to the punch

13 Mar 2018

An illustration of Kitty Hawk’s flying taxi, Cora. Image: Richard Lord/Kitty Hawk

Alphabet CEO Larry Page has been putting his vast wealth into a number of projects, including a flying taxi start-up currently testing in New Zealand.

A number of start-ups and Silicon Valley giants have at least toyed with the idea of building and operating a fleet of autonomous, electric flying taxis, but so far it has remained largely on the drawing board.

However, on the South Island of New Zealand, a start-up called Kitty Hawk is taking a massive step towards this idea becoming a reality by going out of ‘stealth’ testing and moving into fully public testing.

According to The New York Times, locals have observed the strange-looking craft flying overhead, but were not kept in the loop as to what it actually was.

As it turns out, Kitty Hawk is financed by Alphabet CEO and Google co-founder Larry Page, whose ambition is to beat other companies such as Uber to the punch and launch a fully fledged autonomous flying taxi service.

The aircraft, called Cora, has a 10-metre wingspan, is propelled by 12 electric rotors and can carry two passengers for a distance of 100km.

It has managed to go under the radar in New Zealand because, until now, it has been operating under the different name of Zephyr Airworks. Some intrigued investigators began to connect the dots after it was found that its CEO was named Fred Reid, president of another company associated with Page called Zee Aero, which also shares the Kitty Hawk craft’s codename, Zee.Aero.

Part of carbon reduction plans

As part of an announcement, Page and New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern are set to confirm Kitty Hawk’s certification process for testing, which could see a commercial network operate in the country in as little as three years.

Speaking of what the move means for the country, Ardern said the decision 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 also said the move is part of the country’s plan to produce net carbon by 2050 as the taxis are fully electric.

Kitty Hawk was founded by Sebastian Thrun, Google’s former director of Google X, the advanced research division that also oversaw Google’s autonomous car developments.

It first made major headlines in 2017 with a video showing a large, piloted drone capable of landing on water, but the company has obviously pivoted considerably into the flying taxi market.

The next step is to design a ride-hailing app for the people of New Zealand.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic