Wisk, a joint venture between Boeing and Kitty Hawk, is ready to take flight. The company announced on Tuesday that it has a signed memorandum of understanding with the government of New Zealand to conduct a flying taxi trial using its all-electric, self-flying aircraft Cora.
With the deal in place, the company says it will begin planning for the passenger trial, which will take place in Canterbury, a region on New Zealand’s south island that encompasses the city of Christchurch. Wisk will also need to receive certification for Cora by the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority before it is approved to fly.
Wisk is a new name for a not-so-new project. The story begins in 2016 with the formation of Kitty Hawk, a secretive flying-car company bankrolled by Google co-founder Larry Page and run by Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford AI and robotics whiz who launched Google’s self-driving car unit. It started with a sporty flying boat called the Flyer and then expanded to include Cora, a two-seater flying taxi.
In March 2018, Kitty Hawk officially exited stealth mode with the announcement that it would be teaming up with Air New Zealand to eventually launch a flying taxi service in that country. But it lacked a major manufacturing partner for Cora, so it teamed up with Boeing, which was also working on its own electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft.
Its aim is for Cora to one day provide a flying taxi service that can reportedly be summoned with an app. The plan is for the vehicle to not have a pilot on board; instead, it will be flown mainly by autopilot systems, with supervision from a human pilot situated remotely. A key element of its partnership with Boeing was the company’s NeXt division, which is focused on ways for autonomous and piloted craft to share airspace safely.
But while Cora’s development was soaring, the Flyer hit a snag. Kitty Hawk originally pitched the idea of a single-seat, battery-powered aircraft intended to be used at low-altitude over water, like a jet ski on rotors.
As reported by Forbes, the project was plagued by “technical problems and safety issues with Flyer and unresolved questions about its practical use.” Days after the story published, Kitty Hawk announced that Cora had been folded into a joint venture company named Wisk Aero. The company claims to have completed “over 1,000” test flights over the last few years.
With Cora spun out of Kitty Hawk, the Page-backed group is working on a new aircraft, dubbed Heaviside. The electric orange-and-black vehicle has eight rotors to help power its vertical takeoff and landing abilities, and it’s apparently 100 times quieter than a helicopter.
Of course, many companies have promised revolutionary new aircraft for years, only to miss deadlines or fail to live up to past promises. In addition to Kitty Hawk’s troubles, another startup, Zunum Aero, struggled to raise money and was forced to lay off employees after Boeing backed away as an investor.
The jury is still out on whether an electric vertical takeoff and landing-based air taxi system would make an appreciable contribution to a next-generation transportation system, or whether it would simply be an escape hatch for the super-rich to avoid street-level traffic congestion.