Flying taxis: Kitty Hawk and Boeing team up on urban mobility

Kitty Hawk’s Cora aircraft. Kitty Hawk

Companies big and small have recently been expanding efforts to explore the viability of small, electric, autonomous flying machines for air-taxi services in urban areas, with partnerships beginning to spring up between various players with an interest in the technology.

Take Boeing. The company this week announced it’s partnered with Mountain View, California-based Kitty Hawk — a relatively small startup backed by Google co-founder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page — as part of a plan to “to advance safe urban air mobility,” according to the aerospace giant, though it declined to disclose the precise terms of the deal.

Kitty Hawk, named after the beaches of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina where the Wright brothers’ flying machine first took off in 1903, has been developing a couple of small aircraft since its founding four years ago.

One of them, Flyer, is an electric-powered single-seater with 10 sets of rotors and two control sticks. It currently has a top speed of 20 mph, though it’s hoped that a future design will reach speeds of up to 100 mph.

Its more ambitious design, however, is Cora, an autonomous two-seat electric aircraft with 12 wing-mounted rotors that enable vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), and a large pusher-prop that allows it to fly like a regular airplane.

Cora has a range of around 60 miles and a top speed of 93 mph, and has already been undergoing testing in New Zealand.

Boeing said the new partnership will combine the innovation of Kitty Hawk’s team with Boeing’s scale and aerospace expertise, and gives the plane-maker access to an expanding and potentially lucrative market. The tie-up is similar in many ways to the way in which long-established automakers have been partnering with tech startups to research and develop autonomous cars.

“Working with a company like Kitty Hawk brings us closer to our goal of safely advancing the future of mobility,” Boeing’s Steve Nordlund  said in a release. “We have a shared vision of how people, goods, and ideas will be transported in the future, as well as the safety and regulatory ecosystem that will underpin that transportation.”

Commenting on the partnership, Kitty Hawk CEO Sebastian Thrun said his team set out “to advance technology in flight and bring new innovations to life,” adding, “I am excited about our companies working together to accelerate making safe electric flight a reality.”

Boeing’s main rival, Airbus, has been making progress with its electric, autonomous Vahana VTOL aircraft, and there are plenty of other companies working on their own designs, too.

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