French inventor Frank Zapata grabbed headlines around the world when he flew his hoverboard across the English channel from Pas de Calais, France, to the famous white cliffs of Dover.
But Bay Area commuters may soon do Zapata one better by skimming above San Francisco Bay on autonomous, single-passenger drones being developed by a Peninsula start-up company with ties to Google.
The automated drones are electrically powered, capable of vertical takeoff and landing, and would fly 10 feet above the water at 20 mph along a pre-determined flight path not subject to passenger controls. The drones’ rotors can shift from vertical to horizontal alignment for efficient forward movement after takeoff.
The company behind all this, three-year-old Kitty Hawk Corp., has personal financial backing from Google founder Larry Page, now CEO of Google’s parent, Alphabet, who has long been interested in autonomous forms of transportation.
And Kitty Hawk’s top executives also have Google pedigrees. CEO Sebastian Thrum is the founder of X (previously Google X) and a leader in developing the self-driving car, as well as Google Glass and other projects. Alex Roetter, president of Kitty Hawk’s Flyer division, spent many years as an engineer at Google and was senior vice president of engineering at Twitter before joining Kitty Hawk.
The company’s website says Kitty Hawk “builds electric flight transportation solutions to free people from traffic.”
Unlike autonomous cars, which face the complexities of tangled road networks crowded with human drivers, drones would operate initially in very low-level air-space that is relatively uncongested.
Although Kitty Hawk has discussed its work with specialized technology journals on occasion, the company is characteristically secretive and didn’t respond to our inquiries about the project. But the business is known to operate a test site at Lake Las Vegas in Nevada and has been quietly testing its drones for the past year under the name Zephyr Airworks in New Zealand, where it also hopes to establish a commercial service.
Waterfront sources say the company’s tentative Bay Area plan calls for debut runs between Treasure Island and Emeryville, a corridor where bay winds tend to be less powerful than elsewhere. One departure point would be the Emeryville Marina; the other would either be Treasure Island’s Pier 1 or a yet-to-be-determined location on the island. Pier 1 has the advantage of having a dock already in place, but it is decidedly unglamorous and, having been constructed for a battleship, is 30 feet above the water and would require some type of new ramp.
While Kitty Hawk is based in Mountain View, a Coast Guard spokesperson said the drone project is operating “non-commercial development phase operations” out of the Redwood City Marina, one quarter of which is leased to Google for special projects.
The last Google-related waterfront undertaking to attract public attention was the ill-fated Google Barge project, a group of floating barges designed as luxurious maritime marketing platforms for Google Glass. That secretive project was scrapped in 2014 before coming to fruition after its existence was first disclosed by KPIX 5-TV in San Francisco, and it ran afoul of regulatory authorities, including the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.
Named after the North Carolina beach where the first aircraft flight took place, Kitty Hawk reportedly hopes to inaugurate Bay Area runs before the end of this year.
But the company faces a regulatory thicket that could potentially exceed the red tape encountered by Google Barge.
In an effort to clear obstacles to its drone project, Kitty Hawk is rumored to have hired a lobbyist with both Sacramento and local political connections. It isn’t clear, however, what steps Kitty Hawk may have taken to win approval, or at least mitigate objections, for this undertaking.
The Coast Guard said it is currently reviewing the Kitty Hawk vehicle’s classification -- i.e., whether it is considered a water vessel, seaplane, air taxi, hovercraft or something else --and the military service’s jurisdiction over the vehicle will depend on how it is classified.
Asked what unique problems or opportunities the Kitty Hawk project might pose, the Coast Guard said this mainly depends upon where it is operated:
“Parts of San Francisco Bay and adjacent waterways are considered “narrow channels or fairways” where a navigation rule “prohibits interference with vessels that can only navigate within these areas. Coast Guard Sector San Francisco continues to creatively pioneer best practices during prototype testing of novel innovations with a maritime nexus.”
Another interested party from a regulatory perspective is the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), which regulates bay fill and changes of use that have an impact on the bay.
Brad McCrea, regulatory director at BCDC, said he had received a telephone call on behalf of Kitty Hawk asking about potential issues the drone project might encounter.
Airborne vehicles are not part of BCDC’s regulatory purview, McCrea said. “Flying is not an issue.”
He added, however, that BCDC would get involved if the project put a dock or structure in the water or built a facility such as a launch or a runway within 100 feet of the bay.
Treasure Island Development officials either declined to comment or profess that the agency has not been approached about the drone. The San Francisco County Transportation Agency has also not been approached, according to its spokesperson, Eric Young.
This article was originally published in Waterfront Briefing, a regular executive report of issues and events related to San Francisco Bay transit.