Since October, a mysterious flying object has been seen moving through the skies over the South Island of New Zealand. It looks like a cross between a small plane and a drone, with a series of small rotor blades along each wing that allow it to take off like a helicopter and then fly like a plane. To those on the ground, it has always been unclear whether there was a pilot aboard.
Well, it turns out that the airborne vehicle has been part of a series of “stealth” test flights by a company personally financed by Larry Page, the co-founder of Google and now the chief executive of Google’s parent, Alphabet.
The company, known as Kitty Hawk and run by Sebastian Thrun, who helped start Google’s autonomous car unit as the director of Google X, has been testing a new kind of fully electric, self-piloting flying taxi. This is an altogether different project from the one you might have seen last year in a viral video of a single-pilot recreational aircraft that was being tested over water, and it’s much more ambitious.
Now that project is about to go public: On Tuesday, Mr. Page’s company and the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, will announce they have reached an agreement to test Kitty Hawk’s autonomous planes as part of an official certification process. The hope is that it will lead to a commercial network of flying taxis in New Zealand in as soon as three years.
Mr. Page’s ambitions to create taxis in the sky has a sense of gravity, excuse the pun, not just because of his deep pockets and the technological prowess of his team but also because of Mr. Reid, who is a former chief executive of Virgin America. Before that he was president of Delta Air Lines and president of Lufthansa Airlines, where he was co-architect of the Star Alliance.
In an interview, Mr. Reid said the opportunity to use New Zealand as the first place to commercialize the autonomous taxi service was a step-change in the advancement of the sector. Kitty Hawk is already working on an app that would allow customers to hail one of its air taxis.
The aircraft, known as Cora, has a wingspan of 36 feet with a dozen rotors all powered by batteries. It can fly about 62 miles and carry two passengers. (Its code name had been Zee.Aero — hence all the speculation and confusion.) The plan, at least for now, isn’t for Kitty Hawk to sell the vehicles; it wants to own and operate a network of them itself.