By S.L. Fuller, Rich Abott | November 23, 2017
Airbus is busy with Vahana, CityAirbus and other projects, some through its A3 outpost. Sikorsky made an S-76D into an unmanned aircraft system and put it on a path to certification. Bell Helicopter is an official Uber partner in the ridesharing giant’s electric VTOL initiative. The missing airframer in this urban air taxi trend appeared to be Boeing. But the company’s recent acquisition of Virginia-based Aurora Flight Sciences — also an official Uber partner — shows that Boeing has no plans of sitting this one out. Chris Raymond, VP and general manager of Boeing’s autonomous systems business unit, admitted as much last week.
“I think one of the reasons we’re excited about [Aurora] joining us is they’ve got a rich research and technology portfolio” as well as good manufacturing and prototyping capabilities, he told reporters.
Raymond noted Boeing kept Aurora under its engineering and technology organization by design so it can report directly to the company’s executive council and maintain both its commercial and defense applications.
“I think our view is urban mobility is likely to change and happen. You know, it’s hard to predict when that will fully take root,” he said. “But I think the view would be it’s a 'when' not an 'if' and when that day comes you don’t want to be behind.”
According to Raymond, this does not make it difficult for the defense business to access their capabilities.
“In fact, we’ve already had engagements together at leadership team to leadership team levels,” and he spent all day Nov. 14 at Aurora’s office. “I think there’s already relationships in place that are only get stronger and easier now and I think there’s already examples where we’re jointly pursuing some opportunities.”
Raymond said the Boeing acquisition deal may have been closed relatively quickly, or felt like it closed quickly, because it is a private company and the relationships with leaders like Aurora chairman and CEO John Langford were good.
“His influence had a lot to do with it: ‘Let’s get this done,’” Raymond said, recalling Langford’s response to the acquisition. “'This makes all the sense in the world where we can take our strengths and combine them with Boeing’s.’”
Aurora specializes in autonomy on both fixed- and rotary-wing platforms. The company recently received an FAA Special Airworthiness Certificate for its autonomous Bell UH-1H that is being developed under a U.S. Navy program. It’s XV-24A LightningStrike subscale vehicle demonstrator completed its flight test program in April, with a full test program slated for late next year. This aircraft is under a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project. Although it has no exposed rotors, the XV-24A features a tilt-wing capability that allows VTOL capability.
Carry Haase, program manager for Aurora Flight Sciences, explained during Avionics for NextGen (hosted by R&WI sister publication Avionics in Herndon, Virginia, Nov. 15 to 16) that Aurora uses the same basic autonomy system for all aircraft platforms.
“There are differences, obviously, in the solution space,” Haase said during her presentation. “So you have an obstacle in front of you; what’s the right path to avoid it? Helicopters have some advantages in just being able to just simply stop or can maybe make tighter maneuvers around it. [With] fixed-wing, you’re limited to what the dynamics of the vehicle are. But really, it’s the same basic concept and the autonomous landing. The differences are in the details of what the solution space is.”
That basic autonomy kit, she explained, allows the helicopter to “sense the environment around it, conduct its own route planning and implement those commands into autonomous flight.”
One might argue (as an Avionics for NextGen attendee did) that the amount of infrastructure that needs to be created an implemented to support autonomous urban mobility is great. Uber’s highly publicized initiative — it just announced on an international stage it plans to bring urban mobility to Los Angeles — has been met with skepticism from aviation veterans. Would it even ease the burden of the pilot shortage and save on costs?
“I do think there are definite advantages to the overall industry in terms of increased throughput and increased efficiency of operations. Addressing the pilot shortage or reducing the cost of operations is a part of that,” Haase said. “I agree there’s a lot of infrastructure to get into place for that to happen. So there’s a near-term build-up that needs to occur in order to facilitate that. But down the road I can see it.”
Right now, she said, Aurora’s drones have a one-to-one aircraft-to-pilot ratio. Obviously, that doesn’t decrease the need for a pilot — the pilot is just in a different place. But once “we can break out of that paradigm,” Haase said. But once one pilot can control five or 10 drones?
“That’s when we’ll really start to see an exponential increase in savings and efficiency,” Haase said.
This article includes reporting from Defense Daily, an R&WI sister publication.