Earlier this year, we wrote a profile on an interesting startup, Zee Aero, developing a battery-powered vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft near Google’s X lab. The company caught our attention when it started hiring talent from NASA, Tesla and Stanford.
At the time, we couldn’t confirm where the money was coming from, but today we learn that Alphabet’s billionaire CEO Larry Page is secretively behind the electric aircraft startup, reportedly financing it with over $100 million, and even setting up a competing startup, Kitty Hawk, to test another model.
The group’s proximity with Google led a lot of people to believe it was financed by the tech giant, but in fact, Page is financing the initiative himself and not through Alphabet or Google Ventures.
The new information comes from a profile of several electric aircraft startups by Ashlee Vance and Brad Stone published in Bloomberg Businessweek today.
As we discussed in our profile back in March, Zee Aero was founded by Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford and former NASA Researcher at Ames Ilan Kroo. He recruited a surprising number of students and colleagues from both organisations to launch his startup, which managed to develop several prototypes of battery-powered and self-piloting aircraft.
While Kroo was listed in filings as the founder since the company’s inception in 2010, we now learn that Page was crucial to the founding as he provided all the capital and asked for his involvement to remain secret.
Vance and Stone wrote:
“The Zee.Aero headquarters, located at 2700 Broderick Way, is a 30,000-square-foot, two-story white building with an ugly, blocky design and an industrial feel. Page initially restricted the Zee.Aero crew to the first floor, retaining the second floor for a man cave worthy of a multibillionaire: bedroom, bathroom, expensive paintings, a treadmill-like climbing wall, and one of SpaceX’s first rocket engines—a gift from his pal Musk. As part of the secrecy, Zee.Aero employees didn’t refer to Page by name; he was known as GUS, the guy upstairs. Soon enough, they needed the upstairs space, too, and engineers looked on in awe as GUS’s paintings, exercise gear, and rocket engine were hauled away.”
The fact that Page kept a SpaceX rocket engine gifted by Elon Musk at the Zee.Aero headquarters is particularly interesting since Tesla’s CEO often talks about having himself developed a special electric VTOL aircraft design. Musk and Page have been reported meeting with other tech leaders at a secret location in Silicon Valley to discuss innovative ideas. This place could be it.
Musk mentioned that for electric aircraft to become a reality, energy capacity in batteries needs to improve to 400 Wh/kg, while his Tesla vehicles are believed to be powered by battery cells with ~240 Wh/kg.
While the battery capacity needs to improve, several other technologies need to be developed in aerospace to support a new electric powertrain. It’s exactly with Page is trying to do with his startups: Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk. Yes, he also started another company to challenge his own startup:
“Last year a second Page-backed flying-car startup, Kitty Hawk, began operations and registered its headquarters to a two-story office building on the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac about a half-mile away from Zee’s offices. Kitty Hawk’s staffers, sequestered from the Zee.Aero team, are working on a competing design. Its president, according to 2015 business filings, was Sebastian Thrun, the godfather of Google’s self-driving car program and the founder of research division Google X. Page and Google declined to speak about Zee.Aero or Kitty Hawk, as did Thrun.”
The aircraft are often referred to as “flying-cars” because the prototypes are often only for 1 to 4 passengers and can only travel relatively short distances. What is particularly interesting, and something we noted in our last report, is that most of those concepts are basically “manned-drone”, meaning that they are autonomous vehicles.
Self-piloting is a lot easier to achieve than self-driving, something Page is also working on through Google, since you don’t have to deal with all the corner cases of two-dimensional roads. It’s a lot easier to autonomously deal with air traffic, takeoff and landing.
Interestingly, some of the companies interviewed by Bloomberg are talking about a similar timeline as self-driving cars: 5 to 10 years. Though there’s no word on when Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk will be ready to unveil their technology. Strangely, Bloomberg reports that Page once vowed to a colleague that if his involvement with the two startups ever became public, he might pull support from the companies. Let’s hope he will keep financing these interesting projects.
You can read the full Bloomberg report here. They talk about several other electric aircraft prototypes:
Gallery via Bloomberg – Featured Image: Ehang 184 prototype