Boeing to buy Aurora Flight Sciences – Transportation News

on Oct7

5 October 2017 | 4:15 pm

(Bloomberg)—Boeing is buying longtime partner Aurora Flight Sciences, gaining a portfolio of futuristic technology such as unmanned air taxis that may someday navigate city skies for Uber Technologies.

With the acquisition, Boeing is betting on smarter airplanes, 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 Facebook broadcast after the acquisition was announced today.

The deal underscores Boeing’s focus on smaller, targeted transactions while competitors such as Northrop Grumman and suppliers like United Technologies are pursuing large-scale mergers. Boeing said the purchase of Manassas, Va.-based Aurora, which has 550 employees, wouldn’t affect its financial guidance. Terms weren’t disclosed in a statement by the companies today.

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.

AIR TAXI

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 and Embraer 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, John Langford, Aurora’s CEO, said during the Facebook webcast. For the economics to work, future fleets of air taxis and drones will involve networks of vehicles with a single controller operating “dozens” of airplanes, he said.

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 Chicago-based planemaker is studying artificial intelligence that would allow a single pilot to be at the controls during a long cruise, a potential step toward fully autonomous flights.

BATTERY TECHNOLOGY

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, Wash.-based company developing hybrid-electric aircraft.

Aurora, with Honeywell International and Rolls-Royce Holdings, 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 Boeing Engineering, Test & Technology known as Aurora Flight Sciences, A Boeing Company. It will keep an “independent operating model,” Boeing said.



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