Kitty Hawk, the air taxi company founded by Google’s co-founder Larry Page, is buying 3D Robotics, a former competitor of DJI in the consumer drone market. CEO of 3DR, former editor of Wired magazine Christian Anderson, will join Kitty Hawk as chief operating officer.
Kitty Hawk, named after the town from which the Wright Brothers first took flight, was founded by Larry Page in 2010. Its current goal is the development of electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, also known as eVTOL, with a stated focus on remote piloting and autonomous operation. The current CEO is Sebastian Thrun, a Google executive who founded Google’s driverless car project that later developed into Waymo, as well as its X moonshot division.
3D Robotics was founded in 2009 by Christian Anderson, and initially aimed to develop and sell commercial drones to consumers. It became one of the only American competitors to Chinese drone company DJI, but after the Chinese company began to dominate the commercial drone market, 3DR abandoned its hardware projects, like its drone Solo, and switched to just developing software for commercial drones.
Kitty Hawk’s first project was the Flyer, a small personal vehicle designed to be flown over water, which was notable for the fact that it could be piloted without a pilot’s license. The Flyer was discontinued in 2020, which triggered major layoffs within the company. Kitty Hawk’s current focus is the development of the Heaviside. The Heaviside resembles an airplane more than previous projects, and shares similarities with other eVTOLs being developed by startups. Kitty Hawk hopes to make the Heaviside fully autonomous.
The acquisition of 3D Robotics follows a turbulent time within Kitty Hawk. Damon Vander Lind, the engineer behind the Heaviside, was recently let go from the company. This decision was reportedly due to Vander Lind’s belief that the Heaviside should currently be designed with a pilot in mind, while CEO Sebastian Thrun is pushing for a fully autonomous aircraft. Vander Lind’s exit also followed a number of other employee departures, including a few engineers who left as they believed Vander Lind was acting out in retaliation due to an anonymous safety report that flagged concerns with Vander Lind’s approach to safety. There were also allegations of sexism made by two female engineers who then left the company, claiming that their opinions and contributions were valued less than that of their male counterparts.
With the acquisition of 3D Robotics, perhaps this will settle activities at Kitty Hawk and give a solid direction for the future.