Google founder Larry Page has personally funded Zee.Aero since its launch in 2010 while demanding that his involvement stay hidden from the public, according to 10 people with intimate knowledge of the company.
Larry Page has a plan to usher in an age of personalized air travel, free from gridlocked streets and the cramped indignities of modern flight.
Zee.Aero now employs close to 150 people. Its operations have expanded to an airport hangar in Hollister, about a 70-minute drive south from Mountain View, where a pair of prototype aircraft takes regular test flights. The company also has a manufacturing facility on NASA’s Ames Research Center campus at the edge of Mountain View. Page has spent more than $100 million on Zee.Aero, say two of the people familiar with the company, and he’s not done yet.
In the six years since its founding, Zee.Aero has hired some of the brightest young aerospace designers, software engineers, and experts in motor and battery hardware. They’ve come from places such as SpaceX, NASA, and Boeing, and they’re all chasing after the goal presented succinctly on Zee.Aero’s spare website: “We’re changing personal aviation.”
Zee.Aero was led by Kroo, the Stanford aerospace professor. He wrote the original Zee.Aero patent, No. 9,242,738, which shows a strange-looking one-seater aircraft with a long, narrow body. Behind the craft’s cockpit, rows of horizontal propellers run along both sides of the body of the plane to handle the VTOL work. There’s also a wing at the back with two more propellers that add forward thrust.
Zee.Aero worked on this design for a couple of years. Small, computer-controlled versions of the aircraft were photographed by reporters and hobbyists sitting in the parking lot at 2700 Broderick Way. None of the prototypes were big enough to fit a human.
Page grew dissatisfied with the rate of progress. In 2015, Kroo returned to teach at Stanford full time but continued to advise Zee.Aero as “principal scientist,” while the company’s engineering chief, Eric Allison, took over as chief executive officer. Under Allison, the company began work on a simpler, more conventional-looking design, now coming to life at the Hollister Municipal Airport
People working at the airport have caught glimpses of two Zee.Aero craft in recent months. Both have a narrow body, a bulbous cockpit with room for one person upfront, and a wing at the back. In industry lingo, the planes are pushers, with two propellers in the rear. One of the prototypes looks like a small conventional plane; the other has spots for small propellers along the main body, three per side.
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.
The Kitty Hawk 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.
Kitty Hawk has about a dozen engineers, including some Zee.Aero veterans. Others came from Aerovelo, a startup whose claim to fame was winning the $250,000 Sikorsky Prize in 2013, for building a human-powered helicopter that could stay aloft for more than a minute. Kitty Hawk employees include Emerick Oshiro, who did self-driving car work at Google, and David Estrada, who handled legal affairs for Google X.
Kitty Hawk is working on something that resembles a giant version of a quadcopter drone.
Better materials, autonomous navigation systems, and other technical advances have convinced a growing body of smart, wealthy, and apparently serious people that within the next few years we’ll have a self-flying car that takes off and lands vertically—or at least a small, electric, mostly autonomous commuter plane.
Mark Moore, an aeronautical engineer who’s spent his career designing advanced aircraft at NASA. “What appears in the next 5 to 10 years will be incredible. Self-flying aircraft is so much easier than what the auto companies are trying to do with self-driving cars.”
For Larry Page, these project are deeply personal. He’s been known to spend evenings with Elon Musk, both men thinking aloud about ways to fundamentally change transportation. Musk wants to build an upscale electric VTOL jet; Page wants the down-market version. In an interview with a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter a couple of years ago, Larry Page confessed that he longed to take more risks like his industrialist friend.
SOURCES – Business Week, Zee Aero