WWW, 24 April 2017—Google co-founder Larry Page has revealed the Kitty Hawk Flyer, tweeting a YouTube video showing its prototype being flown by outdoorsman and freelance writer Cimeron Morrissey. The prototype Kitty Hawk Flyer is an all-electric single-passenger octocopter that’s classified an ultralight, does not require a pilot’s license to operate, and can be flown only for recreation in uncongested areas, only over fresh water lakes and rivers. Developed by the Zee Aero division of the Kitty Hawk Corporation, the actual production model is promised to have a different look and feel from the prototype, and to go on sale by the end of this year.
With expectations raised by the involvement of Page, particularly with his work on Google’s self-driving car initiative, what has been spun up as his “flying car” project has delivered a vehicle that’s been described as coming up short on its promise. The significance of the Kitty Hawk Flyer is, after all, overshadowed by the announcement of other, bigger vehicles coming out soon in commercial numbers—air cars spec’d out to carry numerous passengers on road-bound city commutes and airborne intercity hops. In comparison to these commuter solutions that aim to become Jetsons-inspired futuristic mainstays, the Flyer presents as a, well, as a toy.
But, the thing about it that’s in plain sight, what obscures its role in shaping what private airborne transport can become, what makes it fly under the radar, so to speak, is what makes the Kitty Hawk Flyer’s manned flight a game changer. Bigger contenders, those that seem to fit the “flying car” template better, work off century-old engineering. These still use internal combustion engines to produce propeller-driven thrust, and fixed- or auto-rotating wings to generate lift. In contrast, with the Kitty Hawk Flyer, it may look like a seat was just grafted onto a scaled up drone, but it’s the first personal flyer concept evolved from this fairly new, multi-copter platform that’s being used, so far, only for unmanned flight.
Better context for appreciating the Kitty Hawk Flyer would be the jetpack. Futurists of the past had played with this personal, liquid-fuel rocket pack. It had its fair share of Hollywood appearances, in James Bond and off-beat race flicks, but the jetpack had endurance measured in seconds and could be flown only by stunt doubles, by brave and expert expendables. Now comes the Kitty Hawk Flyer with relatively mundane electric fans replacing the ignition of exotic rocket fuel, and with flight time extended to practical and useful minutes.
With the last century’s jetpack, there was little incentive to bridge and exploit that gap between a personal rocket and a full-blown orbital booster. The authorities can’t be expected to tolerate fire-spouting projectiles sending folks on personal trips tracing criss-crossing ballistic trajectories. But now, with the Kitty Hawk Flyer looking like commonplace drones and driven by non-volatile electrics, there’s no hint of the fantastic in the notion of larger, more serious electric multi-copters eventually coming online for near future commuters.