Boeing Bets on Robot Pilots, Air Taxis With Aurora Takeover

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  • Planemaker gains futuristic portfolio with autonomy pioneer
  • Autonomous-aircraft company has projects with Uber, Pentagon

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Boeing Co. is buying drone pioneer Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., gaining a portfolio of futuristic technology such as unmanned air taxis that may someday navigate city skies for Uber Technologies Inc.

With the acquisition, Boeing is betting that smarter airplanes will dominate flying, with computer algorithms and artificial intelligence playing an increasingly important role in the cockpit. Aurora is an early leader in autonomous flying, with products like a robotic co-pilot and software that can sense landing strips.

“We can’t predict what that future looks like. But whatever form that air travel takes, we want to be a leader,” Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s chief technology officer, said on a webcast after the acquisition was announced Thursday.

The deal underscores Boeing’s focus on smaller, targeted transactions while competitors such as Northrop Grumman Corp. and suppliers like United Technologies Corp. pursue large-scale mergers. Boeing said the purchase of Manassas, Virginia-based Aurora, which has 550 employees, wouldn’t affect its financial guidance.

Terms weren’t disclosed in a statement by the companies. Hyslop didn’t say if he expects the takeover to close this year, noting that the purchase is subject to U.S. Defense Department approval over the transfer of some of Aurora’s leading-edge technologies.

Optional Pilots

Aurora has designed, produced and flown more than 30 unmanned air vehicles since the company was founded in 1989. Its aircraft use autonomous technology including perception, machine learning and advanced flight-control systems. There’s the Centaur, an “optionally piloted aircraft,” and a robotic co-pilot that has flown a Boeing 737 flight simulator. 

In April, the company successfully flew an air-taxi prototype that takes off and lands vertically, handy for rooftop arrivals and departures. Aurora aims to deliver 50 of the aircraft by 2020 for testing by Uber Elevate, the ride-sharing company’s initiative for flying cars. Uber, which also counts Textron Inc. and Embraer SA as partners, envisions urban customers zipping over traffic snarls with aircraft summoned by computer or mobile phone.

Autonomy will have to play a crucial role if the technology is to be successful, said John Langford, Aurora’s chief executive officer. For the economics to work, fleets of air taxis and drones will need to involve networks of vehicles with a single controller operating “dozens” of airplanes, he said.

‘Powerhouse Combination’

The company hadn’t considered selling itself until Boeing approached it several months ago, Langford told reporters during a conference call. 

“We decided it could really be a powerhouse combination,” he said, “in terms of getting our innovations out to a world market.”

For more on how flying taxis will be more like taking the bus, click here

The two companies already work closely together on a range of defense and commercial products, Langford said. Aurora, Boeing and aerospace robotics manufacturer Electroimpact Inc. teamed up to create developmental test components of the all-composite wing for the 777X, the new jetliner that the Chicago-based planemaker is developing.

Aurora’s expertise in self-flying aircraft will also benefit Boeing, which has stepped up its research in that area as a pilot shortage threatens to crimp airline growth. The planemaker is studying artificial intelligence that would allow a single pilot to be at the controls during long flights, a potential step toward fully autonomous flights.

“We’re looking at the advances in sensing technology, artificial intelligence and other aspects around autonomous flight -- what that can do to make a safe airplane even safer,” Hyslop said. “There’s clearly areas on our commercial aircraft that Aurora can play a role in.”

Electric Propulsion

Aurora is a leader in electric propulsion for aircraft, another area of interest for Boeing as automakers spur rapid advancements in battery technology. Boeing’s venture capital arm has also invested in Zunum Aero, a Kirkland, Washington-based company developing hybrid-electric aircraft.

Aurora, with Honeywell International Inc. and Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, is developing a hybrid-electric plane for the U.S. Defense Department. The aircraft is powered by 24 ducted fans that tilt, enabling it to take-off vertically like a helicopter, or to hover or cruise.

Once the acquisition closes, Aurora will become a subsidiary under Hyslop’s Boeing Engineering, Test & Technology division. It will keep an “independent operating model,” Boeing said.

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