A self-piloted electric air taxi backed by Google co-founder Larry Page is being tested in Canterbury and hopes to be the first viable craft of its kind in commercial operation.
California-based company Kitty Hawk, which is operating as Zephyr Airworks in New Zealand, has been trialling the aircraft here in a covert project since October last year.
The vehicle, called Cora, first took off in November and Kitty Hawk hopes to have it operating commercially in as soon as three years. Kitty Hawk is financed by Page and led by former Google X director Sebastian Thrun, who helped start the online search giant’s autonomous car unit.
On its website, the company said Cora “had the potential to transform spaces like rooftops and parking lots into places to take off right from your neighbourhood”.
“After a global search for a partner, Cora has landed in New Zealand to start a new phase of evolution. With its commitment to innovation and forward thinking regulatory ecosystem, New Zealand is the perfect collaborator.”
Christchurch’s economic development and marketing agency, ChristchurchNZ, said it had been working with Zephyr to help it get established in the region and to begin trials.
“Canterbury was the right location due to our physical environment,” said ChristchurchNZ chief executive Joanna Norris. “We have open skies and open spaces, in a beautiful friendly location and we encourage innovation.”
The region’s connectivity to the wider world was also a factor in bringing Zephyr to the region and made it attractive for trialling new technology.
“Trials such as this allow us to consider future possibilities for transport which could have far-reaching benefits to everyday travel and could even support our growing tourism market, enabling people to enjoy our beautiful place safely,” said Norris.
Christchurch Airport had also helped Zephyr find a suitable test area.
“With New Zealand’s internationally respected aviation certification processes, and the country’s first on-road testing of a fully autonomous electric vehicle, the South Island is the obvious place to test Cora,” said the airport’s chief executive, Malcolm Johns.
The airport had been in discussions with the American company for some time and it was keen to support new transport technology.
“Christchurch Airport’s growing reputation as a test bed for innovation, and in particular autonomy, is growing, because we combine the right physical environment for safe testing with understanding of technological advances,” said Johns.
Navigation services provider Airways said it was developing a nationwide unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) traffic management system to enable drone activity across New Zealand airspace as well as integrate vehicles such as Cora safely into the national air traffic network.
“There is no doubt that technology is evolving and Airways’ role is to enable safe and flexible access to our airspace to allow these new industries to thrive,” said Airways chief executive Graeme Sumner
“New Zealand’s regulatory environment and relatively uncongested airspace make us an attractive option for new operators. We are looking for ways to safely support more complex operations and facilitate new entrants, including the Zephyr Airworks’ autonomous aircraft, into our skies.”
Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel said she was excited about the possibilities Cora presented.
“This aircraft represents the evolution of the transport ecosystem to one that responds to a global challenge around traffic and congestion, and is kinder to the planet,” said Dalziel.
“Christchurch is committed to becoming carbon neutral and we are embracing future technologies in the areas of future transport, future foods, Antarctica and space technology, technical adventure clothing, social enterprise – we are open for business and making strong strides in these areas.”