Larry Page’s air taxi outfit Kitty Hawk showed off its latest concept Thursday, an eight-motor prototype that uses an unconventional forward-swept wing and is purportedly 100 times quieter than a conventional helicopter. The Mountain View, California-based company calls it Heaviside, after noted physicist and electrical engineer Oliver Heaviside, who advanced a variety of theories and innovations in mathematics, electronics, and communications in the early 20th century.
The new aircraft has been in development for nearly two years, according to TechCrunch, which first reported on the prototype. Based on the altitude and flight characteristics demonstrated in a short video, Kitty Hawk appears to be relatively far along with the aircraft, compared to other electric vertical-lift aircraft (aka flying car) efforts, many of which have showed concepts and prototypes but haven’t flown much. (The video does appear to use computer animation for some segments.) A company spokesperson says all of Heaviside’s flights so far have been remotely controlled.
This is the third aircraft Kitty Hawk has shown publicly. The single-seat Flyer, which stays between 3 and 10 feet above the ground, is meant for recreational use. The larger Cora, which Kitty Hawk is testing in New Zealand, uses 10 rotors and is targeted toward the kind of air taxi market Uber champions. Kitty Hawk has said little about its goals for Heaviside, but it appears closer to a final candidate for urban mobility, with a refined shape and what appears to be a more developed noise-control strategy.
Kitty Hawk is funded by Page and led by Sebastian Thrun, who at Google launched Google X and the self-driving effort that’s now Waymo. Thrun has placed considerable emphasis on that acoustic signature, which promises to be one of the greatest challenges in terms of public acceptance of urban air mobility.
The new video shows the aircraft flying at 1,500 feet and producing a barely audible 38 decibels, while a conventional helicopter at the same altitude produces 60 decibels. The ultimate vision, Thrun told WIRED earlier this year, is to “free the world from traffic.” But that hinges as much on social acceptance of these aircraft—including the noise they make—as on technical developments. “This is a decade-long question,” Thrun said.
Heaviside uses its eight motors—six on the wings and two on a forward canard—to generate vertical lift, with the propellers angled downward, and horizontal thrust when they’re facing the rear. The wing will generate most of the lift in horizontal flight, while the props will contribute to low-speed control, via relative differences in rotor speed that help the aircraft pitch, yaw, and bank.
The company hasn’t disclosed why it went for forward-swept wings, but historical experimentation with the idea—most notably in the experimental Grumman X-29 fighter jet prototype of the 1980s—suggests it can generate more usable space in front of the wing and improves maneuverability. It’s likely that Kitty Hawk is more interested in the former, and though the Grumman concept generated aerodynamic and stability challenges, the Heaviside’s bevy of motors could presumably overcome those.
Among the dozens of electric air taxi programs in development, Kitty Hawk has long been considered a front-runner, along with Beta Technologies, Lilium, and Joby. Actual footage of aircraft in flight has been rare, and the video released today suggests that Kitty Hawk is indeed pushing its ideas aggressively into reality.