Larry Page and Sebastian Thrun enter the Drone Taxi Market with a Bang


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taxi drone
Illustration of a taxi drone, not the Cora

You may have never heard of Larry Page, but it’s almost certain you’ve used technology that he helped create. Page is the co-founder of Google and the search giant has since diversified into almost every branch of tech you can think of.

It’s not far-fetched to say that Page and his colleagues have changed the world and now the billionaire is turning his attention to autonomous aerial transport. In other words, drone taxis. Not too long ago I also wrote about the drone taxi project from a Chinese company named Ehang.

Their solution seems almost ready to roll out, but Page and his Alphabet-funded startup Kitty Hawk also have a prototype at an advanced stage of development.

The company has CEO Sebastian Thrun of Udacity fame at the helm, and now we have a better idea of what’s coming from the company following early teasers.

Enter Cora

The aircraft has been named the Cora and was revealed on YouTube, another Alphabet/Google property. Cora is an interesting beast, to be sure. It’s a VTOL craft that uses multiple rotors to lift off and land vertically, but it has a main rotor to provide thrust.

In the video the craft is shown taking off and then transitioning from vertical to horizontal flight. The rotors continue providing vertical lift until the airspeed is fast enough for the wings to keep it aloft. The rotors then shut down and it basically becomes an autonomous plane until it has to land.

Being Stingy

Why not just go the Ehang route and make it an octocopter? Well, for one thing planes are more fuel efficient than vertical craft. Presumably having it transition provides an overall saving on electricity.

The Cora is rated for a top speed in excess of 150 km/h with a range of 100 km. Compare that to the Ehang 184, which has a top speed of 100 km/h and a flight endurance of 25 minutes. That provides an optimistic maximum range of about 40 km.

Clearly these two craft are designed for slightly different use cases, with the 184 being better suited for intra-city hops. Which is why one of the first places it will be in service is Dubai.

No American Pie for You

Interestingly, Kitty Hawk will not be testing the Cora in the US. Presumably US aviation rules are a little too restrictive (especially in California), so the company has settled on New Zealand as its sandbox. The NZ government is cooperating closely with the company since they have radical targets to achieve zero emissions within a short time frame. A fully-electric air taxi service might be a key part of that overall strategy.

So welcome has Cora been that the reveal video contains a personal statement and endorsement from the NZ Minister for Research, Science and Innovation Dr. Megan Woods.

It’s not surprising since the US has been struggling to iron out the rules for even small UAVs, much less commercial autonomous passenger craft. Even the might Amazon couldn’t test its drone service, California, within the States.

No Licence Needed

According to Kitty Hawk, there are no manual controls in the Cora and you don’t need a pilot’s licence to fly in it. At least as far as New Zealand is concerned. We still haven’t exactly seen how the avionics and flight control network will work, but I assume the NZ government will have to be deeply involved.

There is no definitive date for the commercial launch of Cora or whatever the final production model will be called. CEO Sebastian Thrun has said it should happen California. Such a generous timeline suggests that although the craft itself is ready to fly, the software, infrastructure and legislation still have a long way to go.

Hopefully if it’s a hit in New Zealand and all the major wrinkles are ironed out it won’t be long before we can try Cora for ourselves.

In the meantime there are plenty of other autonomous drone taxi startups to light a fire in the industry. Who needs a car anyway?

Sydney Butler