Zee?  Kitty Hawk? Cora?

Different Names, Different Configurations

Zee, One of two aircraft companies funded by Google founder and CEO Larry Page, has been a highly mysterious business.  Its web pages mostly gave discrete job descriptions for those willing to sign up for a mostly undefined mission.  Occasional glimpses of patent drawings, spy shots of a multi-rotor craft in Google’s Mountain View, California parking lot came into view, and later, in-flight shots of other, different looking craft came from Hollister, California.

Kitty Hawk, the other company funded by Larry Page, seems to have subsumed Zee and produced a 12-rotor, single-propeller aerial taxi about the size of a Cessna 150, but capable of vertical takeoffs and landings and seamless transitions to forward flight.  A white example has flown at Hollister airport and a yellow version at a field in New Zealand.

An Almost Epic Journey

The intellectual, physical and geographical journey of this craft is almost epic, and seems to have resulted in a 13-motored machine that can fly the length of a runway, hover, and alight gently.  The background and changes of corporate identity are a bit daunting, and the story comes to light here.

One of Zee’s original patent drawings

A short form of the story, from the Vertical Flight Technical Society online Electric VTOL News, squeezes the story to three succinct paragraphs:

“The effort began in March 2010, originally under the leadership of Prof. Ilan Kroo of Stanford University. Patent 9,242,738 (priority date July 19, 2011) illustrates a high-mounted series of vertically mounted electric propellers similar to Z-P1.

Looking a great deal like the patent drawing

“The first vehicle, the Z-P1 Proof of Concept (POC) made its first unmanned (self-piloted) hover in Dec. 2011, and in Feb. 2014, completed its first transition. The aircraft demonstrated flights up to 60 mph (100 km/h) with vertical take-offs and landings. The manned Z-P2 aircraft made its first flight in late 2016 or early 2017; in August 2017, the Z-P2 made its first transition.

Z-P2 flight test in Hollister, CA. Note that wing has been added, configuration severely changed

“Testing of the Z-P1 and Z-P2 led to the initiation of the two-seat Cora demonstrator, and the subsequent Zephyr testing in New Zealand.”

White Cora probably flying over Hollister – although both this and yellow version seem to both now be in New Zealand

Sebastian Thrun and Ilan Kroo Initiated Zee

Zee, the first iteration of Google’s drive to bring flight to everyone, was started by Sebastian Thrun, widely acknowledged as the father of driverless cars.  With Google cars and Zee springing from Mountain View, California roots, Thrun oversaw imaginative approaches to making transportation cleaner and safer by land and by air.

Ilan Kroo’s biography on Linked In gives this review of his early and ongoing efforts for what has become Cora.  “Took a leave of absence from Stanford from 2010 to 2015 to start Zee.Aero.   As first employee and co-founder, built a strong team of over 100 aerospace engineers to develop new concepts on personal air transportation.  Returned to Stanford in 2015, but continue to spend time at Zee as Principal Scientist.”  He has also designed the Swift ultralight tailless sailplane, among other accomplishments.  A trip to the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California reveals several NASA designs that are products of his fertile imagination and refined engineering skills.

He has initiated and guided the different design efforts from inception in 2010 to the current two-seat prototype and apparently tested a variety of configurations.  Cora has only a glancing similarity to the original patent drawings.

At this point, though, Eric Allison has assumed the position of Vice President of Engineering for the firm and continues flight testing in New Zealand, which has been generous in welcoming Kitty Hawk to the country.   Note that the name has changed to Zephyr Airworks (Kitty Hawk in New Zealand) and that Fred Reid is CEO, with enthusiastic support from the country’s Minister for Research, Science and Innovation.  An apparently open-minded promotion of clean aviation enables unfettered flight testing to go forward.  (Although there are seven test ranges in America that might suffice.)

Interesting Features on Cora

The designers and builders have incorporated some interesting features on Cora.  The 12 “lift fans” seem to be an integrated motor/propeller unit, and are set at varying angles to the horizontal.  The motors are probably axial flux, but also incorporate axial cooling vanes in their perimeter.  The wide fan blades seem to be molded into the top cover for each motor.

Reviewing in-flight pictures of Cora and earlier test vehicles, the fans seem to have different angles in different shots, showing that they probably change position to control lateral or pitch movements of the machine.  This would add a level of complexity to controls not experienced with systems like eHang’s, where the propellers maintain a constant angle to the horizontal axis of the vehicle.

Cora has undergone eight years of development and seems to have a high degree of refinement.  Don’t look for a Cora dealership in your neighborhood soon, though.  Kitty Hawk intends this for use in on-call ride services.  All you will need is a smartphone to call your ride.  The video below repeats some material from the first but provides additional information on the plane’s development.

With Joby Aviation reportedly flying its autonomous vehicle around the California Coastline, eHang testing its one- and two-seat pods with its entire board of directors, Vahana hovering over the eastern Oregon plains, and Autonomous Flight making journeys along the south coast of England, several VTOL systems are openly or surreptitiously taking flight.  Cora seems to be coming out from a long period of only occasional glimpses.  Let’s hope that all these enterprises succeed and prosper.


The Vertebrate Battery

“Prof. Yuan Yang of the engineering school at Columbia University (New York) modeled, designed, built, and fully evaluated a configuration that emulates the spine of vertebrates, while providing 85% of the energy density of a prismatic Li-ion cell with equivalent volume.” According to Power Electronics.com.

Professor Yang’s 14-member team, working in the impressively-named Center for Precision Assembly of Superstratic and Superatomic Solids, and  inspired by the flexibility of the human spine and its ability to repeatedly endure bending and twisting, designed a battery that emulates the characteristics of what is in essence a structural battery.  We know from experience that our backbones can perform some pretty extraordinary twists and turns – witness the supple routines of gymnasts and Cirque de Soleil performers.

In the flexible spine-like battery, the vertebrae correspond to thick stacks of electrodes and soft marrow corresponds to unwound part that interconnects all the stacks (a). To fabricate the spine-like battery, multilayers of electrodes were first cut into designed shape; then strips extending out were wound around the backbone to form spine-like structure (b). (Credit: Yuan Yang/Columbia Engineering)

Our spines are not rigid assemblies, but a complex construction of solid parts (vertebrae), flexible bits between the vertebrae (disks), and a network of wiring (nerves), which transmit signals from our organs and extremities to the brain and back.  The electrolytes carried in our blood and circulated throughout our body help power the constant brain/body interactions.  This pitifully lay version of things can give only a hint of what really goes on in this marvelously complex system.

In the flexible spine-like battery, the vertebrae correspond to thick stacks of electrodes and soft marrow corresponds to the unwound part that interconnects all the stacks (a). To fabricate the spine-like battery, multilayers of electrodes were first cut into designed shape; then strips extending out were wound around the backbone to form spine-like structure (b). (Credit: Yuan Yang/Columbia Engineering)
Sufficient similarities between what happens in our bodies and what transpires in batteries led research Yang to devise a battery that allows the flexibility of the spine with a resilience that seems surprising, given the explosive characteristics of conventional lithium batteries.  YouTube abounds in videos of batteries being subjected to various forms of bending and poking, with fiery results.

Yang’s YouTube evidence shows his batteries undergoing repeated flexing at high speed without crying “Uncle!” as our own spines might.  This durability would be of great use in wearable electronics, and might have a place in grander mobile structures.

Researchers cut what started as conventional anode/separator/cathode/separator “stacks” into long strips with multiple branches.  They then wrapped those strips around the backbone “to form thick stacks for storing energy, like spinal vertebrae.”  Energy density in this spinal form is a “function of the ratio of the longitudinal percentage of vertebra-like stacks compared to the whole length of the device, and can reach over 90% in theory; the prototype was very close at 85% (242 W-hr/L – Watt-hours per liter).”

To verify mechanical integrity, researchers cut open the post-test battery and found “no obvious cracking or peeling from the aluminum foil, confirming the mechanical stability of the design.  Even better, flexing seems to have caused no changes in the voltage profile during the entire discharge cycle of the battery.

The team’s paper, “Bioinspired, Spine-Like, Flexible, Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Batteries with High Energy Density,” was published in the January 2018 issue of Advanced Materials.  Although the paper is a pay-per-view item, 12 pages of supporting illustrations and the two videos shown here are not.

Flexible and Strong Enough for Aircraft?

If this material will work for watch and FitBit bands, or provide heat for skier’s parkas, would it not be a candidate for use in future aircraft structures?  Your editor has been an advocate for what he calls the Grand Unified Airplane, a vehicle that would pull energy from the air and sunlight through which it flies.  This type of battery could provide energy storage and structure in an all-in-one component – or even a complete airframe.

Thanks to Patrick McLaughlin for sharing the source material for this entry.


Get Your Flu Shots

Your editor apologizes for the two-week hiatus in blog entries.  He was popped into Intensive Care on Valentines Day with a particularly debilitating flu, and is just now spending more time upright than supine since that event.  Things are happening, so as strength and resolve return, you will be among the first to follow some pretty exciting events.  Thank you for your patience.

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Starling Jet Comes in Three Sizes

 The Starling Jet now joins electric or hybrid flying commuter craft from sources all over the world. A Middle-East backed, London-based project, the Starling Jet is swoopy and high-winged, and comes in three sizes with different missions.

The Commuter Craft Trifecta

Time, a most precious commodity, is the major selling point for most of these sky taxis.  Saving an executive’s schedule enhances productivity, whether it’s whisking a CEO over the traffic jams in Dallas or Dubai.  For many similar machines, the impetus is to democratize the flight experience, offering many an Uber-like experience at Uber-like prices.  Samad Aerospace, creator the Starlings, is looking toward a more exclusive market.

Samad e-Starling speeding over London

All such craft promise the convenience of point-to-point transportation, foregoing intermediate shuttle or cab rides to get to an airport, while expanding the range of takeoff and landing locations.  Like Los Angeles, which once required flat roofs on new high-rises to accommodate helicopter traffic, other urban areas may changes zoning and other codes to facilitate the growing stream of overhead traffic.

The third component, environmental protection, comes from the smaller Starling Jet’s all-electric propulsion and the larger machine’s hybrid drive train.

From UAVs to Executive Comfort

As noted above, Starlings will be available in three sizes.  The unpiloted UAV Starling, fully-electric, will carry 10 kilograms (22 pounds) at 150 mph between 100 and 300 miles, if the specifications claimed by Samad are achieved.  This would give it a utility well beyond most smaller UAVs, enabling transport of fairly large packages over intermediate distances or extended “hang” time for “observatory” function.

Carrying up to seven passengers, the all-electric e-Starling could provide business and leisure domestic travel for its private owners, carrying them at 300 mph for up to 400 miles.

For UNHW (ultra-high net worth) individuals, the Starling Jet, a hybrid-electric craft, would carry up to 10 lucky souls at 460 mph between 900 and 1,500 miles.  This exclusivity and bespoke nature of the machine carries over into the UNHW, politicians, and corporate leaders to which this machine is addressed.

A Different Kind of Ducted Fan

Rather than pivoting the fans on the wing to transition from vertical to horizontal flight, the Starlings retain a fixed position for the powerplant and divert airflow through a flexible duct.  It will be interesting to see how this arrangement holds up in repeated use.

The company notes in a recent press release (without getting too detailed), “The Starling Jet is designed to have the high power to weight ratio electric fans similar to that of gas turbine engines. In addition, it features the power electronics and battery technology that can operate at a very low temperature and extreme environment of 30,000 ft altitude. The company is taking advantage of current developments in battery and power electronics and low-cost gas turbine engine for charging the batteries at cruise.”

Powerplants for the different machines are not specified yet, although the company is connected to a unique “powerwall” that uses North Sea gas – part of the existing infrastructure in the UK – rather than solar or wind power for energy.  Seyed Mohseni, CEO for the power system and VTOL wings of the business, claims 95-96 percent efficiency for the micro-turbines intended to provide electricity, heat and hot water for British homes.

This unique approach to finding “green” approaches to domestic energy needs and future transport shows why the firms have attraceted academic support and venture capital.  The next few years should be productive and exciting for Samad.


Schleicher’s Sustainable Flight for Two

Alexander Schleicher Segelflugzeugbau (sailplane maker) has been crafting high-performance soaring craft since its inception in 1927.  Their latest creation, a two-seat, 20-meter (65.6 feet) span motorsegler, the ASG32 El, includes a 25 kilowatt synchronous motor driving a Schleicher-designed 1.55 meter (5 feet) retractable propeller.


ASG32 in flight with 25 kW sustainer (retriever) motor raised, optional solar panels on motor compartment doors

The motor is a “home help” device, a sustainer motor to keep the ASG 32 El aloft once it is launched by a winch or by being pulled by a towplane.  The motor does not allow for self-launching.  Its low power, coupled with the airplane’s clean design, does enable a 1.3 meter-per-second (255 feet per minute) rate of climb.  The aircraft’s battery is sufficient for 20 minutes of all-out power or 100 kilometers (62 miles) of “sawtooth” flight, short climbs followed by longer glides, even with a full load of two pilots.

ASG32 El single lever motor control

A single control level raises the motor and propeller into operating position, and when pushed further, turns the motor on and controls the speed of the motor.  Similar to the Lange Antares single-lever control, the unit simplifies operation, adding to flight safety.  A specially designed battery management system (BMS) monitors and controls the 1,200 lithium-ion cells housed as a battery pack in the motor compartment.

Battery pack compresses 1,200 cells, BMS into space within slender fuselage

The aircraft and its power system (a first for Schleicher) were designed by a “Schleicher-led consortium including the University of Kassel, the University Baden Württemberg at Mosbach and companies with expertise in battery technology was created for the development process. The propeller and control unit were also developed with expert specialty firm,” according to the company.

Simple instrumentation, much like that on FES-powered sailplanes, helps pilot see RPM, battery temperatures, state of charge

Recently approved by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the first electric sailplane with a “retriever” unit to achieve that honor, the ASG 32El also achieves the goals of its makers.  “The primary goal in the development of the electric sustainer was to ensure a maximum operational safety in the air and on the ground. With its simple operating system and overall battery concept this requirement has been achieved in the ASG 32 El.”


MAGiCALL, a California-based firm whose slogan, “Innovative Magnetics to Power Your Products,” covers everything from aircraft to medical applications, has introduced a combined MAGiDRIVE™ integrated motor and controller line of products.  These are of particular interest for electric aircraft designers, since the company has been picked to supply motors to the Airbus A3 Vahana project.

MAGiDRIVE motors combine motor and controller in one compact, light unit

Whatever else they may accomplish, the many multi-rotor sky taxis will create a demand for a great number of motors, controllers, and battery packs.  16 on every Volocopter, eight to 16 on every Ehang, and eight on every Vahana will promote mass production, perhaps leading to a Model T moment where such technology becomes universally affordable.

What Ford did for automobiles, most of the current crop of sky taxi designers are attempting for the democratization of flight.  They could start with Ford employee Bill Stout’s motto, Simplicate and add more lightness.”  He, by the way, designed the Ford TriMotor, the first certified airliner in America, and later had dreams of an early sky taxi – the Aerocar.  Although Stout’s vision never came to fruition, Molt Taylor adopted the name for his own successful machine.

The idea and the ideals are not new, as shown in this Modern Mechanix article from 1943

MAGiCALL has one approach to making Stout’s idea happen, combining motor and controller in one compact unit.  Melding the two air-cooled units eliminates the weight of connecting cables and the possibility of issues resulting from long cable lengths.  ABB’s PowerPoint presentation details the challenges involved.

Essentially, the only thing left for the designer to do is figure out how to route battery cables to the combined unit and sort out how to control their speed.  This can be done by a variety of means, including “CAN, RS485, PWM, Ethernet, and more.”  The motor can be controlled for “torque, speed, power, and more, ” and run as a motor or generator in both directions.  (MAGiCALL advertises their use as generators on wind turbines.)

Mechanix Illustrated showed sky taxis as they might have been in 1943. Modern improvements make for smaller garages

MAGiDRIVE claims to be light and powerful, their 75M example motor with an outside diameter of 11 inches and length of five inches weighing 11 kilograms (24.2 pounds) and exerting up to 130 Newton-meters (95 pound-feet) of torque and putting out up to 60 kilowatts (80.4 horsepower).

The motors have hollow shafts to allow variable pitch propellers and pitot tubes, and provide integrated temperature, vibration and health monitoring.

Units range from 4.1 inches in diameter to 18.4 inches, with nothing over 7.6 inches long (thick?).  They can produce from six up to 300 maximum kW (eight to 402 hp.), with up to 1,000 Nm (738 pound-feet) of torque.  Weights range from 0.7 to 49.5 kg. (1.54 to 108.9 pounds).

With the potential that these motor/controllers will be mass-produced to satisfy the sky taxi market, prices could be agreeably low in the future.  As more Experimental Aircraft Association members turn toward electric flight, such systems will be in great demand.  We seem to be on the verge of a new era in green aviation.

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An Executive Perk Unlike Any Other

Chinese firm Ehang staged a demonstration of great confidence in its 184 (one passenger, eight motors/rotors, and four arms) autonomous flight vehicle.  The CEO and all executive members of the firm, and Guangzhou government officials got rides, with many giving thumbs-up signs during their trips.

Hu Huazhi, Founder and CEO of Ehang, fills us in on numbers.  Over 150 technicians and engineers worked more than 1,000 days and ran over 1,000 test flights to bring the Ehang 184 to its current level of trustworthiness.  Flights held at the Ehang test flight site in Llanyungang City show the founder using stick and rudder to control the machine.  Xiong Yifang, cofounder and CMO for Ehang, flew with great enthusiasm while Huazhi notes a previously unannounced two-seater has carried the heaviest passengers, including Zhong Hang, Vice President, and Richard Liu, Chief Financial Officer – with up to 210 kilograms (462 pounds) combined weight.  A lighter VP, Tang Zhejung, gave a V for Victory (or peace?) sign on her flight.  Note that the Ehang 184’s net (empty) weight is cited as 260 kilograms (572 pounds).

As noted above, the 184 was not the only star of this well-choreographed show.   A two-seat model (the 2168 – two passengers, 16 motors/rotors, eight arms?) makes its appearance, interspersed with flights of the 184.  The machine stays right side up, although the intrepid test pilot vigorously tries out pitch and roll controls along the otherwise stable flight path

Ehang and Huawei Seek Aircraft (and Airspace?) Control

This brings up the question of aircraft (and airspace) control.  Onboard sensors and systems can fly the Ehang in force 7 gales, according to the manufacturer and shown with images of the eight-rotor craft being tested in ostensibly force 7 winds (about 5:30 on the video).  The Beaufort Scale lists Force 7 winds at 28 to 33 knots (32.2 to 38 mph), more than enough to push the average Cessna past its controllable landing speed.  Ehang explains the pod has shown itself able to handle high and low temperatures as well as such high winds.

Beyond aerodynamic control, Ehang has a large control center to monitor and possibly control the flight of their otherwise autonomous vehicle.  How much will the pilot on board (if provided with a stick and rudder pedals) be able to provide total control of the machine?  Will ground control have ultimate authority, or will autonomous, pre-programmed controls guide the aircraft?  Certainly Huawei, which makes smartphones, servers, routers and other connected communications devices and systems has a major part in this. Since Ehang features its two-story control screen as a major component in its tests, what are the protocols for each of the elements involved?

These are questions that will need to be answered for such aircraft to gain certification worldwide, or in individual countries – each with a unique set of rules and restrictions.  The regulatory constraints may be more difficult to overcome than the physical ones.

Ehang seems to be doing a great job of making a machine in which even its executives are comfortable flying.  Can they, and their many competitors, be as successful with national and local governments?


People waste billions of hours sitting on roads worldwide each year. We envision a future where commuting by eVTOL (electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing) is a safer, faster, and cost-competitive alternative to ground transportation. We have spent the last ten years developing the technologies that have made our full-scale technical demonstrator possible and are now ready to build a commercial version of the aircraft. We’re excited to have attracted the backing of leaders in auto manufacturing, data intelligence, and transportation sectors.

—Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt (Green Car Congress)

A Knack for Making and Attracting Money

That backing came February 1st in “funding from investors including Intel Capital, Toyota AI Ventures, JetBlue Technology Ventures, and Capricorn Investment Group, a prominent backer of Tesla and Space Exploration Technologies,” according to Bloomberg News.

JoeBen Bevirt has been thinking boundless thoughts for most of his life, based on a highly creative output that includes GorillaPod flexible photographic tripods, energy-gathering kites, electric motors, and advanced aerodynamic designs.  From his sylvan home above the California coastline, he has expanded his work into the currently hot sky taxi realm.

Working Toward Sky Taxis

This is nothing new for him.  He crafted motors for the Monarch Personal Air Vehicle (PAV), a planned single-person commuter craft, seven years ago.  The eight Joby motors, mounted on a pivoting wing based on the Windward Performance SparrowHawk sailplane, would have taken its passenger 100 miles for $1.00 of electricity.

More recently, his company has fielded a two-seat, 12-motor commuter, a drone with folding propellers, and motor, nacelle, and wing work for NASA’s X-57 Maxwell.  The small lift motors are designed to maintain airflow over the wings, while the two “cruise” motors provide thrust for forward flight and economical cruising.  The cruise motors are currently being tested on NASA’s Airvolt test stand at the Armstrong Flight Research Center, Edwards Air Force Base.

Undisclosed is the Word of the Day

In a Bloomberg News article about Joby’s recent acquisition of $130 million in venture capital, Ashlee Vance and Brad Stone were allowed to visit but not photograph, JoeBen’s undisclosed airfield somewhere between Monterey and Santa Barbara.  They discretely report on the appearance of the airplane: “It’s an exotic-looking white aircraft with numerous propellers. (Bevirt agreed to the visit only on the condition that physical specifics remain unpublished.) He calls it an air taxi. “This is what I have been dreaming about for 40 years,” he says. “It’s the culmination of my life’s work.”

Blloomberg’s illustration for Joby assembly line, with artistically-licensed robots welding probably non-metallic craft that look like the S2

Although they didn’t bring back footage or other images, someone at Bloomberg illustrated the article with a production line for aircraft that look similar to Joby’s S2.  Technical papers by JoeBen, Alex Stoll and others show common designs for VTOL craft and low-drag nacelles that look remarkably like those on the Maxwell and S2.  This underlies Joby’s reference to 10 years’ of ongoing research.

Note the similarities in scenarios and animation in the two videos of the Monarch and S2, a great deal like the similarities one sometimes sees in video games.

Reporters Witness a Flight Demonstration

Mirroring Autonomous Flight’s test flights with their Y6S on the south coast of England, Joby allowed the Bloomberg reporters to watch a test flight of the undisclosed airplane at its undisclosed airport location.

“We were the first two reporters to see a demo of the prototype, named Rachel after the women several of its creators used to date.  (They were all named Rachel?) The pilot managed a vertical takeoff, 15 minutes of flight in a 15-mile loop, and a safe landing.  (Italics your editor’s.)  Perhaps that’s why the reporters added this note: “And though Intel owns a stake in a German air taxi startup called Volocopter GmbH, Wendell Brooks, president of Intel Capital, says Joby “is very far ahead relative to all the other things we’ve seen.”

Joby Executive Chairman Paul Sciarra, a co-founder of Pinterest, explains that Joby seeks to build a four-passenger, one-pilot machine that will cruise 150 miles on a single charge, be 100 times quieter than conventional helicopters on takeoff and landing, and “near silent during flyovers.”

Cementing the Future

Joby has one of four competing visions for repurposing an abandoned cement plant in Davenport, California, about 11 miles north of Santa Cruz.  Their presentation for approval of their plan can be seen here.

Along with this potential acquisition, Joby plans on hiring 100 additional employees (to augment the 135 already on board) with skills essential to their enterprise.  Going from creating flexible tripods to crafting motors and innovative aerodynamics with NASA, Joby seems destined for some remarkable achievements in future flight.


Zach Lovering, Project Executive for Airbus subsidiary A3 reports, Today marks a historic day for Airbus, A³, and the Vahana team. We can now announce our successful first flight. At 8:52AM on January 31, 2018 in Pendleton, Oregon, our full-scale aircraft, dubbed Alpha One, reached a height of 5 meters (16 feet) before descending safely. Its first flight, with a duration of 53 seconds, was fully self-piloted and the vehicle completed a second flight the following day. In attendance was the full Vahana team, representatives from the FAA, and A³ leadership, all coming together to witness this historic accomplishment.”

Hovering Autonomously

With canards built in Portland, Oregon at Flighthouse Engineering LLC, the tandem-winged, eight-rotor, 745 kilogram (1,642 pound) machine has a wingspan, or width, of 6.2 meters (20.3 feet), a length of 5.7 meters (18.7 feet) and a height of 2.8 meters (9.2 feet).

Vahana in hover mode under fully autonomous control

Vahana is one of two Airbus VTOL urban transport options, the Pop.Up design combining ground and air transport in a single design.  Pop.Up can be used as a self-driving car, or placed on a rail platform for ground use.  A detachable four-rotor system can lift it for flight use.  Vahana is a more single-purpose device.

Airbus has its own competing vision for future flight, Pop.Up

New Motors

The prototype that flew this week at the Pendleton UAS Range seems to use liquid-cooled Emrax motors from Slovenia sporting redundant controllers.  Airbus announced its intention, though, to partner with MAGicALL, a California-based company that designs and manufactures motors, controllers and other electronic controls on a custom basis.

Vahana on test pad shows its eight motors with cooling, associated electronics

Lovering announced, “Today we are celebrating a great accomplishment in aerospace innovation. . In just under two years, Vahana took a concept sketch on a napkin and built a full-scale, self-piloted aircraft that has successfully completed its first flight. Our team is grateful for the support we’ve received from A³ and the extended Airbus family, as well as our partners including MTSI (Modern Technology Solutions Inc., a consulting firm) and the Pendleton UAS Range.”

Vahana appeared on a napkin just three years ago

With over 50 employees working on the aircraft in Silicon Valley, and subcontractors crafting things like the canard in Oregon, Vahana is a speedily-executed project that shows the power of a well-finance large institution to bring a product to market.  Airbus will have a great deal of competition, as shown in this chart from Deloitte, a consulting firm involved with taxes, risk management and high tech consulting to 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies.

Deloitte’s chart of the current development of sky taxis

As the flight test team progresses to transitions from hovering to forward flight, Rodin Lyasoff, A³ CEO and former Project Executive of Vahana predicts, “Our focus now is on celebrating the work of the tireless Vahana team while maintaining the momentum of this accomplishment.”  We can hope that A3 succeeds in its mission to “democratize personal flight and answer the growing need for urban mobility by leveraging the latest technologies in electric propulsion, energy storage, and machine vision.”


Cuberg, a battery startup “Founded based on graduate research work in the materials science department at Stanford,” includes individuals who worked with Yi Cui at the school.  They promote their safe electrolyte as a key element in their new battery.  “Our highly stable proprietary electrolyte enables the use of high-voltage cathodes and lithium metal anodes in a safe and reliable format.”

Their video shows the relative safety of that premise.  It starts, though, with a quick review of their manufacturing techniques, which are similar to standard methods used in most batteries.

The team, headed by Richard Wang, “Entrepreneur and Battery Scientist,” includes co-founder Mauro Pasta, an Associate Professor at Oxford University.  His Linked In profile includes this note: “Cuberg is an energy startup company developing a new generation of safer and higher energy batteries based on a high-performance electrolyte technology. When combined with our unique cell design, our batteries deliver not only improved energy but also greatly enhanced shelf life, calendar life, and stability at elevated temperatures. Our technology will power the portable electronics of the future and bring about electric vehicles with improved affordability and range.”

Cuberg battery structure allows use of standard manufacturing techniques, tools

Their innovative electrolyte (which the company promotes as a drop-in replacement for existing chemistries), prototype manufacturing in commercial formats, and ability to resist flammable self-destruction, enabled them to obtain funding from the high tech accelerator Cyclotron Road, and their good energy density (a reported 280 kilowatt-hours per kilogram) possibly helped unlock additional funding from Boeing’s Horizon X Ventures.

CNBC reports, “The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Boeing spokeswoman Megan Hilfer said the investment was typical of Boeing HorizonX’s minority equity investments ‘that span the single millions up to the low double-digit millions’ of dollars.”

One can see the relationship between intrinsically safe, lightweight batteries and Horizon X projects such as Zunum.  Richard Wang told CNBC.  “’Currently, battery technology is still heavy.  You need to take a leap to the next generation.’”

Cuberg battery compared to other energy storage devices.  These batteries will initially be costly, but useful in applications where reliability and safety are most important

But Steve Nordlund, vice president of Boeing HorizonX, sees the startup’s product as promising.  “Cuberg’s battery technology has some of the highest energy density we’ve seen in the marketplace, and its unique chemistries could prove to be a safe, stable solution for future electric air transportation,”

Cuberg feels its products can replace conventional lithium batteries in any application where light weight and high energy density are important.  Targeting “a specialty battery market serving the oil and gas industry where energy density, safety, and high-temperature stability are critically important,” Cuberg sees a future in “the creation of entirely new classes of devices and products. Flying cars, here we come.”