Even the most efficient electric cars have to put up with traffic, but a new startup from Google co-founder Larry Page takes to the sky to avoid congestion. Kitty Hawk has unveiled its design for an autonomous flying taxi called Cora. It can take off and land vertically like a helicopter, so it doesn’t need a runway. However, it’s only going to operate in New Zealand during the prototype testing phase.
The vehicle has 12 independent lift fans on the wings that help the craft get into the air and land safely. It can still take off and land without all the fans working. Once it’s off the ground, all forward movement comes from a single rear-facing propeller. Cora is much slower than a regular fixed-wing aircraft, with a maximum speed of 110 miles per hour (180 kilometers per hour). That’s still a real time saver if you’re not going to be stopping at traffic lights. It’ll operate at altitudes between 500 and 3,000 feet (about 152 and 914 meters), which is lower than commercial aircraft, but Cora would likely be restricted from flying near airports.
Cora is completely electric, so it’s quiet and emission-free. The overall cleanliness of Cora will obviously depend on what goes into the electrical grid where it’s recharging. That may be part of the reason Kitty Hawk is looking to New Zealand as its first test location. The government there has made large investments in renewable energy (currently 80 percent of its power is renewable) and intends to become emissions neutral by 2050.
This prototype version of Cora has space for two passengers, and neither one needs to be a pilot. Indeed, being a pilot won’t even do you any good as there are no flight controls inside. The entire trip is managed autonomously by three computers systems. It can continue navigating even if one of the three goes down. In a worst-case scenario, Cora can deploy a parachute and drift down for a soft landing.
Cora looks somewhat compact in pictures, but there’s nothing for scale. In reality, it’s much bigger than you’d expect with a wingspan of 36 feet (about 11 meters). While it won’t need a runway, it will need some sort of open space to land. You won’t just be able to set it down in an active parking lot. Kitty Hawk suggests rooftops as a potential landing zone. Range will probably be an issue as well. The current configuration can manage 62 miles (100 km) on a charge, but it’ll need to make it back to a charging facility after dropping passengers off. That will probably limit the useful range for carrying passengers.
Kitty Hawk isn’t offering a timeline for actual customer flights. When it does happen, New Zealanders will be the first to take flight.
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