An electric air taxi that can take off vertically and fly autonomously has been undergoing testing in New Zealand.
Known as Cora, the prototype has been developed by Kitty Hawk, a Silicon Valley-based aviation startup founded by former Google X chief Sebastian Thrun and backed by Google CEO Larry Page. The two-seater aircraft takes off using 12 independent lift fans and is powered in fixed-wing flight by a single propeller. It has a top speed of around 180 km/h and a range of roughly 100 km.
In 2016, Kitty Hawk established Zephyr Works, a New Zealand-based operator that has been working with the country’s government and local stakeholders to put a test programme for Cora in place. The first air taxi prototype was shipped to New Zealand in October 2017 and testing has been underway ever since.
“We’re really at the beginning of our quest,” said Zephyr Works CEO Fred Reid. “It’s one thing to design and rigorously test an aircraft, but it’s another to make it useful for society. That is the reason we’re so excited and proud to be working with the people and government of New Zealand to roll out a commercial air taxi service. New Zealand is known for its innovation, its devotion to clean energy, which we offer, and to its very high aviation standards.”
According to Kitty Hawk, Cora is equipped with three independent flight computers that each calculate the plane’s position, providing triple-redundancy. Designed to fly autonomously, the company says the aircraft will operate with ‘human oversight’, though what exactly this entails is unclear. Cora’s electric lift motors each work independently, but in the case of emergency, the air taxi is fitted with a parachute that should allow it to land safely even without power.
“We’re offering a pollution-free, emissions-free vehicle that flies dependably,” said Reid. “We think this is the logical next step in the evolution of transportation.”