For years, rumors have swirled
But now we know that Kitty Hawk had something more ambitious in the works: a small, electric aircraft called Cora, which flies horizontally like an airplane but has the capability to take off and land vertically. On Tuesday, the company unveiled the new vehicle.
“Cora is self-piloting, which means that to get where you need to go, you don’t need a pilot’s license,” says Eric Allison, Kitty Hawk’s vice president for engineering. Cora can fly up to 110 miles per hour and has a range of 62 miles.
Kitty Hawk isn’t just planning to build a new kind of aircraft; it’s also planning to launch an air taxi service, starting in New Zealand. According to the New York Times, the company has reached a deal with the New Zealand government to allow the air taxi service to operate, and the company hopes to launch the service in as few as three years.
Federal Aviation Administration rules would have made it difficult to get a project like this off the ground in the United States. “New Zealand has long been viewed as having a thoughtful and safety-conscious regulatory regime,” the Times reports. “That means that the rules it develops may become a template for other nations, including the United States.”
Kitty Hawk will have plenty of competition
It has been clear for several years that improvements in batteries, electric motors, and software would make it possible to build a vehicle like this. Electric motors are much lighter than conventional internal combustion engines, which means that it’s possible for an aircraft to have several small motors instead of one or two big ones.
Multiple propellers make a vehicle safer and more stable, and it also makes it easier to design vehicles with vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities. But it’s difficult for a human pilot to control an aircraft with a bunch of propellers, so sophisticated software is needed to make a vehicle like this
And of course, once you have software controlling significant aspects of a flight, it’s not much of a leap to build a fully self-flying aircraft that people can ride in with little or no experience piloting an aircraft.
One of the biggest obstacles to all-electric aviation right now is batteries. Batteries have gotten better in recent years, but their energy densities are nowhere near as good as conventional fuels. This makes electric aircraft impractical for long flights, since the batteries for a long flight would be so heavy that the plane couldn’t take off.
But it seems entirely feasible to build aircraft for short-range flights—like the 62-mile range of Kitty Hawk’s new airplane. That’s not a long enough range to be useful for intercity service. But it could be useful to quickly move people around within a metropolitan area—for example, flying from San Jose to San Francisco or Baltimore to Washington DC.
A number of companies are working to develop and commercialize small electric aircraft. The startup Joby Aviation raised $100 million last month to commercialize its design for a VTOL passenger aircraft. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich featured a VTOL aircraft called the Volocopter in his talk at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. A German company called Lilium raised $90 million for its electric VTOL jet last September.
Big companies are getting interested, too. Uber has laid out ambitious plans to build intracity flying taxi services. Uber plans to buy the actual aircraft from other companies. One of the companies working on a design for Uber—Aurora Flight Sciences—was acquired by Boeing last year.