More than a century ago, the Wright brothers successfully tested the “Flyer One” in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, USA, taking humans off the surface of the earth for the first time. In 2015, a startup called Kitty Hawk aimed at “flying cars.”
Kitty Hawk was born with a halo. Its founder was Sebastian Thrun, who led Google’s self-driving car Waymo and Google Glass. What attracts more attention is the super-financier behind it – Larry Page, the top ten regulars of the Forbes rich list and the co-founder of Google.
This isn’t Page’s first foray into flying cars. Back in 2010, he recruited Tren and Stanford University aeronautics and astronautics professor Ilan Crewe to develop electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles. The company, Zee.Aero, merged with Kitty Hawk in 2015 to form Page’s flying car dream.
But not long ago, Kitty Hawk announced that it was closing down.Internal sources say they have stopped R&D at Heaviside, and some employees have been paid four months after being laid off.
Fortunately, Boeing later said that Wisk, a subsidiary jointly established by Kitty Hawk and Boeing a few years ago, will not be affected, and the development of the Cora series of products classified under Wisk will continue. Kitty Hawk’s only remaining project remains in the joint venture with Boeing.
Kittyhawk tweets out of business | Source: Twitter
For eVTOL practitioners in the early stages of the industry, the fall of a star company brought a lot of shock. Under the tweet that Kitty Hawk was shut down, a netizen commented,“While this is a pity for a pioneer and leader, from a business standpoint it may have been a good decision – to focus resources on the most promising models, as a company cannot design forever Authenticator.”
If you don’t know what’s right, try both
In 2000, inventor Paul Moller gave a speech on flying cars, and Larry Page stepped forward, expressing great interest in the concept, but also doubting the possibility of technical realization. sex. Moller didn’t take Page too seriously, when the latter was just an engineer in his 20s.
In 2009, Moeller, who had burned out his savings, failed to build a flying car, and had no choice but to declare personal bankruptcy. The industry is about to fall into a trough. With the rise of Tesla, electric motors and autonomous driving technology have ushered in a turning point for flying cars. NASA researcher Moore proposed the concept of electric aircraft, which once again ignited the enthusiasm of geeks.
A group of engineers, including JoeBen Bevirt, who founded Joby Aviation, and Larry Page, came together to raise money for an electric plane project.
A year later, Page invested in Zee.Aero. In September 2015, they launched the Flyer and Heaviside projects, and another company was formed, called Kitty Hawk.
Although registered as two companies, Kitty Hawk actually has Zee.Aero’s old employees, and the two offices are only half a mile apart. So much so that Zee.Aero merged into Kitty Hawk in 2015, which is more like internal competition and team reorganization.
Pictured above is the Z-P2, pictured below is the Flyer | Source: Hittyhawk
Like a synchronous incubation on two different routes, Zee.Aero’s aircraft has a narrow fuselage, a spherical cockpit and a wing at the rear. Kitty Hawk’s earliest announced Flyer model is more like a giant quadcopter drone. .
In the past ten years, Kitty Hawk has successively launched three different configurations of aircraft: the multi-rotor Flyer, the composite wing Cora, and the tilt-wing Heaviside.
However, at the end of 2019, Cora was incorporated into Wisk Aero, a joint venture with Boeing; in 2020, the Flyer project was officially terminated and all energy was devoted to the development of Heaviside. Then just a few days ago, Kitty Hawk suddenly posted on Twitter and LinkedIn –“We have decided to end Kitty Hawk.”
Before commercialization, there are technologies and policies that stand in the way
The Flyer is Kitty Hawk’s first near-production product.
This is a single-seat multi-rotor model, the Flyer with 10 propellers, much like a jet ski with wings. The single-seater design also means:When the only seat is given to ordinary passengers with no driving experience, flying the plane can only rely heavily on autopilot.
Many bigwigs in the field of autonomous driving in the R&D team were very respectful of the single-seat design at that time, and they were confident enough to realize it. The iteration of the second generation not only makes the appearance more technological, but also makes the Flyer’s operation easier.
In 2018, they had promised that they would soon start selling the “air kart”, making it a “personal mount” on the water. However, the customers who paid the deposit did not wait for the delivery of Flyer, and Kitty Hawk also changed the positioning of Flyer from personal private ownership to providing operational services.
In fact, the configuration defines some technical difficulties. Rotary-wing aircraft, without wings or with short wings, also rely on propellers to provide all or part of the lift when cruising, somewhat similar to what we see in helicopters.
Although the research and development difficulty is relatively low, it is inevitable to encounter some problems: high energy consumption, low load, loud noise in level flight, and short range.
Due to the limited battery capacity, the Flyer’s battery life is only 20 minutes. In order to further reduce the weight of the fuselage, Flyer’s engineers tried to abandon the protective cover between the lithium batteries. This “cutting corners” even directly led to the fire of the company building.
In 2020, from the information released by Kitty Hawk, they have built more than 100 aircraft and conducted more than 25,000 successful manned and unmanned flights, most of which are Flyer models. But the Flyer project was officially abandoned.The company explained to the public that it “couldn’t identify a viable market for the aircraft.”
The Heaviside was the next big thing, a tilt-wing aircraft. The model has been secretly developed until 2019 when it was publicly revealed.
Tilting-wing models have wings that can help provide lift in level flight, and the power propulsion system is designed to be tilted, and the thrusters provide both lift and cruise. Several listed eVTOL companies, such as Joby Aviation and Archer, have adopted this configuration, and some domestically adopt this configuration.
With a wingspan of six meters, the Heaviside can fly up to 160 kilometers. The biggest feature of the company’s publicity is that it is ultra-quiet, and it claims to be “100 times quieter than a helicopter”. At 1,500 feet, the Heaviside has a perceptible noise level below 40 decibels on the ground, and judging from the data, the aircraft does perform well.
The Heaviside is also a single-seat aircraft, but Page and Thrun’s initial strategic vision was a two-passenger, larger version that would be piloted most of the time, with a ground operator overseeing it. The status of multiple aircraft, and they maintain communication and coordination with air traffic control.
But getting safety regulators to agree to fly passenger-carrying aircraft without pilots won’t be easy anytime soon. Damon Vander Lind, the chief engineer who designed the original Heaviside, disagreed with the risky route and eventually left Kitty Hawk amid arguments with management. Like Flyer, they need to solve not only technical problems, but also policy approvals.
At one point, they achieved a milestone breakthrough, and in 2021, in a joint effort with the FAA, the Air Force and the ground-based radar service, Kitty Hawk’s aircraft completed a flight in Ohio beyond the sight of ground supervisors.
You must know that a line of defense set by the US regulatory authorities for flight safety is not to leave the line of sight of people, so that many companies have built tall towers for the operation of aircraft.
Heaviside H2 released in 2019 | Source: Hittyhawk
“Forensics” has always been a big deal. In June 2021, Kitty Hawk began to seek the acquisition of 3D Robotics, the drone company that wanted to one-up DJI, although it did not succeed, but pushed its machine to the US government, when they were getting FAA safety certification .
That will be valuable to Kitty Hawk, Thrun told Forbes in 2021. He also said Kitty Hawk expects to receive safety approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for its new air taxi within three years.
After Damon left, Thrun promised to oversee the development of the next version himself, but ultimately a larger model, with a safer autonomous control system, never arrived.
Kitty Hawk once pinned its hopes on military use. In May last year, Kitty Hawk demonstrated Heaviside to the Agility Prime team, conducting simulated medical evacuation and logistics exercises; in July, Heaviside received military airworthiness approval and became the United States. The fourth eVTOL company in the Agility Prime program, which also means that Kitty Hawk can charge the US Air Force for test flights and explore service and business models.
A year ago, Thrun was talking about Kitty Hawk’s business vision in an interview: With a remote pilot overseeing five planes in the air, Kitty Hawk’s operating costs would drop to less than $1 per mile, cheaper than today’s Uber or Lyft .
However, whether it was military or civilian, Heaviside was shut down with Kitty Hawk.
Flying cars need entrepreneurs and geeks
In late 2016, Kitty Hawk established Zephyr Airworks as its operator in New Zealand. 10 months later, the two officially collaborated to launch the Cora model test in New Zealand. The basis of the Cora team is the Zee that was originally acquired.
Cora adopts a composite wing configuration, and the vertical take-off and landing propellers and the horizontal flight propellers operate alternately to provide lift and help cruise respectively.
In March 2018, Kitty Hawk released a video of a successful test flight of the Cora air taxi in New Zealand. The data released at the time showed that Cora’s pure electric drive can reach a speed of 150 kilometers per hour, and the longest flying distance can reach 100 kilometers.
In a longer range, the composite wing may not be the most economical choice, but in the event of wind shear, loss of control, stall, etc. in flight, the composite wing aircraft can immediately activate the independent lift system and put the aircraft in the Aerial hover and controlled descent landing. This puts forward extremely high requirements on the preparation and response time of the power system, and the tilting process of the tilting wing for several seconds cannot meet this point at present.
The Cora is still mostly piloted by an autopilot system, supervised by a remote human operator, but it adds a pilot’s seat. The fifth-generation Croa at the International Air Show in July can carry a pilot and two passengers.
Cora with composite wings | Source: Hittyhawk
Legacy airline Boeing also has its own eVTOL program, but it hasn’t gone well before. At the 2019 Urban Mobility Summit, Boeing’s vice president took the initiative to reveal that the company’s PAV electric manned aircraft prototype crashed during a test flight. Boeing, whose self-research progress is slow, took a fancy to the ready-made Cora, and then the two sides reached an agreement to jointly develop and promote commercial applications.
For Kitty Hawk, Boeing brings aerospace expertise and experience, large-scale production capabilities and capital.At this time, eVTOL projects such as UberAir and Bell Nexus have emerged one after another, and both parties hope to gain a leading edge through cooperation.
In early 2022, Wisk raised $450 million from Boeing, which Wisk said will be used to start mass production, and their goal is to have a commercial air taxi business within the next five years.
Wisk has also made some operational experiments. They have partnered with Blade Urban Air Mobility, a platform for private air navigation services, to own and operate a fleet of 30 aircraft on Blade’s platform.
Ideally, Blade’s experience would help Wisk quickly roll out operations and upgrade operational capabilities. Boeing and Wisk also just announced an operational roadmap for integrating urban airflight into the airspace before Kitty Hawk’s shutdown.
Of course, the premise of everything is that they can obtain the qualifications for safety certification and commercial operation, but this is difficult and difficult both at home and abroad. And after security certification, the cost issue cannot be ignored. The first flying car approved to enter the road is the three-wheeled car Liberity of PAL-V in the Netherlands. Not to mention the problem of operation, the price alone has reached one million.
In October of this year, Cora will release the sixth-generation model, which is said to be their first four-seat model. Four-seat and five-seat are also a common choice for eVTOL companies that provide operational services.
From fully autonomous driving to adding a driver’s seat, from “single mount” to “air taxi”, Kitty Hawk, or Page’s “geek ideal”, constantly “compromising” with technology and policy.
Perhaps Cora is the most promising business model after years of verification by a company, but in the eVTOL industry, there is no shortage of innovation, revolutionary spirit, and geeks who believe in revolution.
Page also invested in Opener, a Canadian eVTOL company founded by Marcus Leng, a tech geek who “piloted” his first in his front yard in 2011 The proof-of-concept eVTOL flew 1 meter off the ground.
Blackfly flight demonstration at EAA Air Adventures this July | Source: Opener official website
Opener’s flying machine, the Blackfly, has a cool look that doesn’t look like an airplane, and they envision this personal flying machine that will only cost the price of an SUV.
Their website states, “In the next few months, the first BlackFly vehicles will be sold to Early Access program participants”, and that “Opener is fully funded and will not seek additional investors”.