U.S. Department of Transportation, Briefing Room
With workers, industry and policy leaders on hand for closing event of Infrastructure Week, administration outlines vision for improving America’s roads, railways, and other infrastructure projects.
WASHINGTON – Surrounded by hundreds of infrastructure workers and stakeholders, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao joined President Donald J. Trump in the closing event of ‘Infrastructure Week’ at Department Headquarters in Washington. Secretary Chao announced the Department has published a federal register notice seeking public input in order to identify and reduce unnecessary regulatory obstacles that too often stand in the way of completing important infrastructure projects across the nation.
“We are so fortunate because this President is a builder, he understands the challenges facing our country's infrastructure better than any national leader in recent memory,” said Secretary Chao. “The Department has published a notice in the Federal Register soliciting comments from the public and all stakeholders on ways to improve government permitting; if you have any ideas, we want to hear from you!”
“The current process takes far too long,” said Secretary Chao. “Today, and all week, we have heard many recommendations from governors, mayors and other state officials who actually build things. A special DOT Task Force has already acted on what we’ve been hearing and identified dozens of ways to streamline the process.”
U.S. Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary Jeff Rosen chairs the Department’s Regulatory Reform Task Force, formed earlier this year in accordance with President Trump’s Executive Order 13777, which directs each agency to establish an RRTF to make recommendations to alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens.
“This is part of a greater focus by the Administration to remain responsive to the needs of the public and industry, rather than pushing a ‘top down, government knows best’ approach to regulation,” said Deputy Secretary Rosen. “We expect this process will help us uncover ways to assist in better deploying infrastructure - ways we hadn’t even thought of.”
DOT is requesting input because public and private project sponsors, engineering and construction professionals, related industry organizations, and other transportation stakeholders are likely to have valuable direct experience with the Department’s requirements. That experience supplements the Department’s employees’ expertise and may help identify when a requirement has become an unnecessary obstacle.
The comment period will be open for 45 days at this link. All comments will be available in the public docket and available for public review. The Department has made engaging the public, especially affected stakeholders, a top priority.
Office of Governor, State of North Dakota
Monday, June 5, 2017 - 3:00pm
BISMARCK, N.D. – Gov. Doug Burgum has accepted an invitation from the White House to meet Thursday with President Trump, senior administration officials, fellow governors, mayors and other stakeholders on ways to improve the nation’s infrastructure through partnerships.
The invitation came after Burgum spent time with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao during Wednesday’s Drone Focus Conference in Fargo, including a one-on-one discussion about how federal investment in transportation infrastructure can have a greater economic impact locally. Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford will join Burgum for the June 8 meeting at the White House.
“This is a tremendous opportunity to advocate for North Dakota priorities and highlight our transportation, energy and infrastructure issues to the highest office in the land,” Burgum said. “We are deeply grateful for the chance to help shape the national dialogue and make an impact with key decision makers on issues critical to our economic health at the local, state and national levels.”
Because of the meeting’s timing, Burgum will be unable to attend Thursday’s Innovative Education Summit at Legacy High School in Bismarck, which will feature several national speakers and hundreds of participants from across the state.
“The educators and community leaders participating in the summit have my highest respect and confidence,” Burgum said. “Their dedication to our students is evidenced by the more than 500 slated to attend. We all want to help students compete and succeed in the 21st century economy, and our shared interest in transforming our education system means this will be the first of many opportunities to engage on this important topic.”
The summit is free and registration is still open. Links to registration information and a list of speaker bios are available at https://www.governor.nd.gov/.
U.S. Department of Transportation
Drone Focus Conference
Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
Drone Focus Conference
Fargo, North Dakota
Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Thank you, Sen. Hoeven, for that gracious introduction, and for inviting me to the second annual Drone Focus conference—an invitation I was delighted to accept. I am so glad to be in your state after hearing so much about it from you and Mikey [Mrs. Mical Hoeven]! My husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and I treasure our friendship with you and Mikey.
Let me also recognize Governor Burgum, who is here today as well. And let me note that today is also the very first National Autonomous Vehicles Day.
North Dakota has been building its drone friendly reputation for some time. In 2013 the Grand Forks Airbase became a drones-only facility. Drone pilots stationed at the base have flown reconnaissance missions around the world, as well as border patrol missions along the US-Canadian and, at times, the US-Mexican border.
The base is also home to GrandSky, which uses the uncluttered skies of North Dakota to conduct Beyond Visual Line of Sight tests of larger unmanned aerial vehicles.
The Center for UAS Research at the University of North Dakota is also making a name for itself in this fast-paced industry. The Department is working with the University of North Dakota, and many other state and local partners, to develop a sound strategy that will help the emerging UAS industry grow and innovate, while maintaining the safety and security the public deserves.
As you may know, this Administration recently announced its FY 2018 budget, which includes a proposal to begin a multi-year effort to modernize our country’s air traffic control system. Currently, the aviation industry is experiencing a rapid evolution of technology and a significant increase of volume at the same time. More people than ever before are traveling by air, making the airspace more complex and congested every day.
By 2020, it is estimated that our airspace will have to support one billion passengers each year. And air freight is expected to more than double over the next three decades. Without change, our current system will not be able to keep pace with those numbers. Already, congestion is taking its toll on the current system. It takes 20 percent more time to fly between certain cities today than it did 25 years ago. Our National Air space System must be able to accommodate these growing demands, or run the risk of falling behind the rest of the world in terms of efficiency and safety.
This Administration’s proposal would separate the operation of our country’s air traffic control system from the safety oversight functions of the FAA. Air traffic control operations would be split off as an independent, non-profit cooperative, while the FAA and its safety oversight functions would remain at the Department of Transportation. A key goal is to increase the capacity of our national airspace with the latest technology, so it can accommodate the expected increase in traffic as well as new entrants like drones.
Smart new transportation technology needs smart infrastructure. And we need the smartest infrastructure possible to allow manned and unmanned aircraft and vehicles to safely share airspace and roads. The line between aerospace and terrestrial transportation technology is beginning to blur. So it makes sense to ensure that our infrastructure can accommodate these developments. This means an appropriate regulatory framework that can keep pace with rapidly changing technology.
That is why the Administration is working collaboratively to resolve some of the unique policy and legal issues involved in safely integrating drones into our airspace.
A key issue in regulating drones is security. How can we defend these systems from hackers? And what can be done to thwart terrorist attempts to use this technology?
Law enforcement and security authorities need to be able to determine whether drones are operating legally. But how much information is needed? And how can agencies get the information they need without violating the rights of the drone operator? And how should authorities mitigate a drone threat without putting people or property on the ground in jeopardy?
These are difficult technical and legal issues.
There is also the question of airspace. Legally, the FAA has regulatory primacy over all U.S. airspace. How do we manage the issue of drones flown at low-altitudes, far from airports or federal facilities? How much authority should local municipalities or county governments have over drone operations? And what about drones operating beyond the operator’s line of sight? The Department has launched an initiative to start answering these questions about airspace.
Recently, the FAA published more than 130 UAS facility maps to help streamline authorizations in the airspace around some of our busiest airports. These maps will help the industry and the FAA work together to streamline what has been a labor intensive and sometimes frustrating process. The maps help drone operators improve the quality of the information they submit to the FAA, and help the FAA to process airspace requests more quickly.
Now, to be clear, the maps are informational. They do not give permission to fly drones. Operators, will still need to submit an online airspace authorization application. But the maps are an important step in making it easier and more routine to conduct “over the horizon” or “beyond line of sight” UAS operations.
More maps will be released in the coming months to support the development of a low-altitude authorization system. Working with private sector companies, the FAA is developing requirements to exchange data with third parties that will enable real-time authorization for drone operations in controlled airspace. This collaboration is laying the foundation for a future UAS traffic management system that relies on cooperative interaction between drone operators.
The FAA is also crafting a pilot program designed to let local communities try different regulatory concepts for controlling drone activity. This will generate data and best practices that the Department can use to help ensure the safety of people and property on the ground and in the air.
For example, the FAA is working with a consortium of leading UAS research institutions, as well as industry and government partners, on a series of studies that will help inform the parameters for safe drone flights over people.
Safety and security are Department priorities, so the FAA is also studying technologies that can be used for drone detection around airports. And the FAA recently hosted an Unmanned Aircraft Security roundtable to discuss challenges and solutions regarding this technology with key stakeholders. Communication and collaboration among all stakeholders is extremely important in addressing legitimate security and safety concerns. That’s why the FAA has also established the Drone Advisory Committee, which is helping to identify solutions to advancing UAS integration.
The FAA has also formed a new Aviation Rulemaking Committee, which will convene this summer to recommend technologies for remotely identifying and tracking unmanned aircraft during operations. The recommendations produced will help pave the way for increasingly complex drone flights, such as those over people and beyond visual line of sight operations.
Please contact Michael Britt, my Senior Advisor for ATO Modernization, for more information on the expansion of UAS operations in the National Airspace System. We invite your input and feedback. You may also contact Earl Lawrence, the Director of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, or email UAS-ID@faa.gov.
Finally, let me note that emerging technology requires a regulatory approach that ensures safety, while encouraging innovation and preserving creativity. This last point is especially important. Creativity and innovation are part of the great genius of America—one of its hallmarks. We must safeguard and nurture this legacy. But it is also critical that Silicon Valley and other innovators step up and share with the public their understanding of new technology, and address legitimate public concerns about safety and privacy.
The integration of drones into our national airspace will be the biggest technological challenge to aviation since the beginning of the Jet Age. Drones are already used by our military, by law enforcement to patrol our borders or conduct searches and in photography, film making, precision agriculture surveying, precision agriculture for crop dusting, new media gathering, infrastructure inspections and much more.
Our job is to prepare the way for this new technology, so it can be deployed safely and usher in a new era aviation service, accessibility and ingenuity.
So thank you for inviting me here today. And thank you for everything you are doing to help enable this exciting new technology.
Article by Norm Park / Estevan Mercury
Click link below for full story.
Published in Prairie Business Magazine
CNATCA plays major role in building consensus.
Click on link to read article.
State Representative Dan Ruby (R-Minot,ND)
Ashlee Vance and Brad Stone BradStone
June 9, 2016 — 4:00 AM CDT
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Illustration by Steph Davidson
Three years ago, Silicon Valley developed a fleeting infatuation with a startup called Zee.Aero. The company had set up shop right next to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., which was curious, because Google tightly controls most of the land in the area. Then a reporter spotted patent filings showing Zee.Aero was working on a small, all-electric plane that could take off and land vertically—a flying car.
In the handful of news articles that ensued, all the startup would say was that it wasn’t affiliated with Google or any other technology company. Then it stopped answering media inquiries altogether. Employees say they were even given wallet-size cards with instructions on how to deflect questions from reporters. After that, the only information that trickled out came from amateur pilots, who occasionally posted pictures of a strange-looking plane taking off from a nearby airport.
Featured in Bloomberg Businessweek, June 13 - 26, 2016.Subscribe now.
Illustrations: Ana Benaroya (flying car); Armando Veve
Turns out, Zee.Aero doesn’t belong to Google or its holding company, Alphabet. It belongs to Larry Page, Google’s co-founder. 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. Zee.Aero, however, is just one part of Page’s plan to usher in an age of personalized air travel, free from gridlocked streets and the cramped indignities of modern flight. Like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, Page is using his personal fortune to build the future of his childhood dreams.
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.
“What appears in the next 5 to 10 years will be incredible”
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. 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.
Flying cars, of course, are ridiculous. Lone-wolf inventors have tried to build them for decades, with little to show for their efforts besides disappointed investors and depleted bank accounts. Those failures have done little to lessen the yearning: In the nerd hierarchy of needs, the flying car is up there with downloadable brains and a working holodeck.
But 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. About a dozen companies around the world, including startups and giant aerospace manufacturers, are working on prototypes. Furthest along, it appears, are the companies Page is quietly funding. “Over the past five years, there have been these tremendous advances in the underlying technology,” says 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.”
Northern California in particular has had a long fascination with flying cars. In 1927 a now mostly forgotten engineer named Alexander Weygers first began thinking up the design for a flying saucer that could zip between rooftops. In 1945 he received a patent for what he described as a “discopter,” a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) machine with room inside for passengers to walk around, cook, and sleep. He depicted smaller versions landing in pods atop buildings in downtown San Francisco. No discopters were built, though it’s believed that the U.S. Army, which paid visits to Weygers’s compound in Carmel Valley, Calif., tinkered with a prototype.
Today, the world’s premier flying-car enthusiast is Paul Moller, 79, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Davis. Fifty years ago, when he was teaching mechanical and aeronautical engineering, he developed a specific vision: an aircraft you could park in your garage, drive a few blocks to a small runway, then take skyward. He tested his first prototype, the XM-2, in 1966. The XM-2 resembled a flying saucer with a seat at its center protected by a plastic bubble. It managed an altitude of 4 feet, while graduate students held it steady with ropes. “We were worried if the machine got out of control, we might kill a few people,” Moller says.
“Self-flying aircraft is so much easier than what the auto companies are trying to do with self-driving cars”
In 1989 his M200X made it to 50 feet above the ground. Then came the M150 Skycar, the M400 Skycar, the 100LS, the 200LS, the Neuera 200, and the Firefly, all variations on the same Jetsonian idea. In January 2000, Moller gave a speech on flying cars at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the birthplace of the graphical user interface and, for nerds, sacred ground. Afterward, an engineer in his late 20s walked up and said he was interested in the concept but was skeptical that streetworthy personal aircraft were technically feasible; at the time, Moller didn’t recognize young Larry Page.
Moller kept trying. He says he burned through more than $100 million developing his designs and declared personal bankruptcy in 2009.
That same year, Moore, the NASA researcher, published a paper describing a concept plane called the Puffin. Moore’s big idea was to use electric motors, which are quieter and safer and have far fewer moving parts than internal combustion engines or conventional turbines. “By going to electric propulsion, you get rid of the vast majority of the complexity, cost, and unreliability,” Moore says. “This is why companies looking at this area aren’t insane.” Moore credits Musk’s Tesla and other automakers with advancing the technology. “Electric motors were mostly used in industrial settings where they were stationary, and no one cared about their weight that much,” Moore says. “It wasn’t until the automotive industry got interested that they started to get more lightweight.”
Carmakers invested in other areas, too, that are helpful for building small electric planes, particularly batteries and the semiconductors that control them. Self-driving systems, like the kind Google uses in its Koala cars, are perhaps a decade away from mainstream use on the roads, but they may already be good enough for the skies. “Self-flying aircraft is so much easier than what the auto companies are trying to do with self-driving cars,” Moore says.
Moore’s paper circulated, rekindling excitement. Sometime in 2009, a small group of engineers had begun meeting in Silicon Valley to discuss funding an electric-plane project. One of them was JoeBen Bevirt, a mechanical engineer and entrepreneur who had studied under Moller at UC Davis. Another was Ilan Kroo, an aeronautics and astronautics professor at Stanford. And another was Page. Although it initially looked as if they might all team up, Kroo and Page broke off to start Zee.Aero. Alone, Bevirt founded Joby Aviation, a company he hopes will beat Zee.Aero to market and prove that his efforts with Moller—and the older man’s life’s work—weren’t in vain.
Bevirt owns a 500-acre compound near Santa Cruz, Calif. To get there, you turn onto idyllic California State Route 1 and drive past the boardwalk, a few blocks of strip malls, and 15 miles of undeveloped, windswept coastal dunes. Then you turn onto a dirt road, pass a lake and a grove of towering redwoods, and walk through gardens overflowing with lavender and roses. It’s here that Bevirt has built a series of workshops, plus housing for about half of his 35 employees.
Bevirt grew up nearby on an electricity-free commune where his mom worked as a midwife and his father built custom homes. From a young age, he learned his way around toolboxes and construction sites, and was an avid reader. After consuming the sci-fi classic The Forever Formula in elementary school, he decided he wanted to build the kind of personal aircraft the book’s hero flew and persuaded a friend to help. “We built lots of prototypes, but they always crashed and burned,” he says. They shifted to custom bikes.
The flying-car dream stuck with Bevirt as he entered UC Davis in 1991 to study mechanical engineering, and he quickly found himself working for Moller, building one prototype after another. Bevirt eventually concluded their shared dream wouldn’t be feasible until battery and motor technology improved. He figured he’d need to wait 20 years. “Paul had been working on this for 30 years, and he was 50 years ahead of his time,” he says.
Bevirt got his bachelor’s, and then a master’s in mechanical engineering from Stanford. He worked in biotech after graduation, co-founding a company called Velocity11 that built robots to sequence DNA. His next company, called Joby (his childhood nickname), sold camera accessories such as flexible plastic tripods. Joby turned Bevirt into a multimillionaire. In 2008 he started Joby Energy, a maker of airborne wind turbines whose technology Google later acquired. The 20-year mark was approaching, so in 2009 he also used some of his wealth to buy the 500 acres and start Joby Aviation.
Its headquarters is an engineer’s fantasyland. The focal point is a large wooden building where two dozen workers sit at a few rows of desks jammed with computers. Aside from the clusters of large black monitors, the place feels more like a barn than an office. Aircraft prototypes hang from the ceiling, as does a thick climbing rope for exercise. In the open kitchen, abutting a long redwood dining table in one corner, a cook uses ingredients from the nearby gardens to prepare three meals a day. While the smell of a Malaysian curry fills the room, a banjo twangs from speakers overhead.
The manufacturing happens at a series of buildings about 100 yards downhill, past gardens and an outdoor clay pizza oven. One of the buildings is an airy warehouse with a giant oven inside—but this one isn’t for pizza. It’s used to cure the carbon-fiber bodies of the planes and looks like a Quonset hut. Former members of Oracle’s America’s Cup sailing team, some of the world’s leading materials experts, oversee the curing process, baking the carbon fiber at about 194F. In another building, engineers build cantaloupe-size electric motors; in a third, they test electronics; in a fourth, they put the finishing touches on wings and other parts. Out back, there’s a large truck with an extendible arm atop its trailer like a cherry picker, which hoists propellers high into the air so engineers can perform wind tests while driving down a road at high speed. Robotic prototypes buzz around.
Bevirt funded Joby Aviation by himself until last year, when he was joined by Paul Sciarra, one of the co-founders of Pinterest. Sciarra grew up in New Jersey, taught himself to code, hit it big with Pinterest, then went looking for something new to throw himself into. He, too, concluded that electric motors and batteries appeared to have applications well beyond the auto industry. “The goal is to build a product that impacts the lives of lots of people,” Sciarra says. “Not just folks that are amateur pilots or wealthy, but everyone.”
Sciarra and Bevirt hope to begin flying a human-scale prototype plane later this year. They won’t give the exact specifications but suggest that it could hold, say, a family of four and travel 100 miles or so on a full charge. The vehicle looks like a plane-helicopter hybrid packed with propellers, about eight mounted on the wings and tail. For takeoff and landing, the propellers hang horizontally like a helicopter’s and rotate for forward propulsion once in the air. Joby Aviation has already built smaller prototypes and has models of the plane’s body, wings, and propellers scattered about the manufacturing facilities. Bevirt and Sciarra see the vehicle taking off from parking garages, roofs, or areas alongside highways. They want to offer flights as an Uber-like service—summon a plane when you need it.
The Joby aircraft looks similar to other vehicles being built around the world. In May the German company E-volo conducted manned flights of its Volocopter, a two-seat aircraft powered by 18 propellers. Other flying-car startups include AeroMobil, Lilium Aviation, and Terrafugia. Even Airbus has built a two-seater prototype at its Silicon Valley labs, say two people familiar with the designs.
In 2013, Red Bull held one of its Flugtag competitions in Long Beach, Calif. Flugtag is a televised spectacle where hobbyists see how far they can launch their homemade flying machines off a dock. It’s more about entertainment than sustained flight—the contraptions generally dive straight into the water, and everyone laughs. At this one, though, a group called the Chicken Whisperers stunned the assembled crowd. Dressed in full-body baby-chick outfits, the team pushed its glider off the dock and watched as it cruised 258 feet, breaking the previous record of 229 feet. The chickens danced. They clucked. They took a swim in the water. They were all Zee.Aero employees in disguise, having fun, trying out some designs.
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.”
At its outset, 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.
Over time, the company realized this might not be the best design, according to three former Zee.Aero employees. Page also 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.
Hollister is a city of about 35,000 nestled among garlic and artichoke farms. Its airport is popular among amateur pilots because of favorable winds and a lack of commercial air traffic. There’s a flight school, a sky-diving business, and a few run-down buildings. The least shabby structure is Building 19, which has been taken over by a dozen or so Zee.Aero workers.
People working at the airport have caught glimpses of two Zee.Aero craft in recent months
The airport is open for business from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, but Zee.Aero employees frequently run test flights when no one else is around. Nonetheless, 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.
When the aircraft take off, they sound like air raid sirens.
The people at the airport haven’t heard Page’s name mentioned, but they long ago concluded Zee.Aero’s owner is super rich. Zee.Aero employees receive catered lunches—sometimes $900 worth of barbecue from Armadillo Willy’s, a local chain. Recently, the company purchased a $1 million helicopter to fly alongside the planes and gather data.
For Page, this project is deeply personal. He’s been known to spend evenings with 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, Page confessed that he longed to take more risks like his industrialist friend. He wanted to dabble with new forms of investment outside the confines of Google and back projects that focused on atoms, not bits. “There’s a lot of money going into internet startup kinds of things, which is great,” he said. “But for some of the real problems we face, I think we need other kinds of investments, too. I have young kids, so I would like them to be safe. I’d like for pedestrians to be much safer. I’d like for blind people and old people and young people to get around.”
The former Zee.Aero employees describe the company as a fun place to work but don’t downplay the serious expectations from Page. He wants the flying-car future, and he wants it now. If the atmosphere grew tense with Kroo’s departure, it didn’t lighten up when the Kitty Hawk team arrived.
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. They all listed the company as their employer on LinkedIn until they were contacted by Bloomberg Businessweek, at which point they erased any mention of Kitty Hawk from their profiles.
Page has drawn a line separating his two flying-car teams, employees say. It’s common for the Zee.Aero engineers to speculate over lunch about what their Kitty Hawk counterparts are up to. The former Zee.Aero employees think Page wanted to see if a smaller team could move faster, and the added pressure on Zee.Aero didn’t hurt. Two people say Kitty Hawk is working on something that resembles a giant version of a quadcopter drone.
There’s no guarantee that Kitty Hawk’s or Zee.Aero’s or anyone else’s flying cars will ever take to the skies. There are still technology problems to solve, regulatory hurdles to cross, and urgent safety questions to answer. Page once vowed to a colleague that if his involvement in the sector ever became public, he might pull support from the companies.
Here’s hoping that’s not true. If nothing else, these projects show that bold, some might say far-fetched, invention is alive and well in Silicon Valley. The place that spent the past decade focused on social network apps has trained its engineering powers on robots, cars, and now aviation. “We were promised flying cars, and instead what we got was 140 characters,” a local venture capitalist once put it. Page and his cohorts are trying to get us both.
Visualize a world where you could drive from Fargo to Frisco without touching the steering wheel.
Picture summoning your car via remote at a crowded mall, and having it drive itself over to pick you up. Imagine your driver’s seat is a swivel chair, your dashboard a computer, a complete mobile work space ready for long road trips.
This world, the world of autonomous vehicles, is not far off, according to North Dakota native Marlo Anderson. As host of the radio talk show the Tech Ranch, a role that earned him the title the “Guru of Geek,” Anderson has reported extensively on autonomous vehicles – and even rode in one himself.
“The autonomous car is already a reality,” Anderson said. “You’re going to start seeing the vehicles this year. It’s not called autonomous features, but you have crash avoidance technology, lane keeping technology, emergency braking on its own – you’re going to see these things being added to the vehicle.”
Just the past five months, America’s largest automobile and technology companies have made major strides towards developing autonomous vehicles.
In November, Microsoft and Volvo announced a joint deal to work towards developing driverless cars. In January, GM and Lyft announced they were joining forces to create an entire national network of self-driving cars.
Google already has a fleet of self driving cars on the streets in certain cities (with some trial and error). Apple may not be far behind with the mysterious “Project Titan.” Elon Musk, of course, has said Tesla vehicles will be driving themselves in two years.
In North Dakota, Anderson and the Central North American Trade Corridor Association are paving the way for these autonomous vehicles – quite literally.
Since 2014, Anderson and a small team have been working on a project called the Autonomous Friendly Corridor. The vision is to use Highway 83 as a corridor for unmanned vehicles to transport goods for commerce. The highway is over 1,885 miles long, stretching through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, even crossing into Manitoba and Mexico.
But unlike your average interstate, the corridor would allow for unmanned vehicles in commerce to mingle with the other drivers using the road.
There is potential too, Anderson said, for the airspace above the corridor, about 15-20 miles wide, to be designated for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) in commerce as well.
Land Ports would be situated every 200 miles, he said, where the vehicles can be refueled and serviced, cargo unloaded or added, and drones can land and be serviced as well.
“It really opens up trade routes to the Hudson Bay – really moves a lot of our products in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, to north and south routes,” he said.
The Autonomous Friendly Corridor
Currently Anderson is raising support and funds for the corridor, and has met with Congressman Cramer, Senator Heitkamp, Senator Hoeven, and Doug Burgum to discuss their interest in the project. All have been interested, he said.
President Obama is putting federal dollars into the game as well. About four billion dollars, to be exact.
On January 14, Department of Transportation (DOT) secretary Anthony Foxx announced the President’s 2017 fiscal year budget proposal to put $3.9 billion towards developing innovation in the self-driving car industry.
The 10-year plan would include pilot programs to test “connected vehicle systems in designated corridors throughout the country, and work with industry leaders to ensure a common multistate framework for connected and autonomous vehicles,” the DOT wrote.
The proposal will also work towards creating a model policy framework for autonomous vehicles. Currently, North Dakota is among only a few states that have autonomous-car-related legislation, along with Nevada, California, Michigan, Florida, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C.
Although the proposal has not yet gone through Congress, and Anderson suspects the budget may go down after that process, backing from the government will significantly boost the advancement of projects like the Autonomous Friendly Corridor, he said.
Anderson went on to explain that there will be a competition as to which corridors will access the funding. There are only a few other similar projects in the country, like this one in Northern Virginia. The fact that the Autonomous Friendly Corridor is the most developed, deals with border control, and ties in commerce and UAVs, positions it as a likely front runner, Anderson said.
“We feel that our corridor is going to be very interesting to them and we have a head start on it already,” he said. “We think we’re very well positioned to hopefully tap into the fund and make our corridor our reality.”
“I’m hopeful that by 2020 that we’ll at least have some limited use,” he said.
Photos courtesy of Google, Marlo Anderson, and CNTCA.
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