Boeing has agreed to acquire Aurora Flight Sciences as the company grapples with plotting an innovation strategy amidst fast-moving developments in composite structures, autonomous systems and electric propulsion.
“This is a new chapter for the Boeing company,” says Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s chief technology officer. “The aerospace industry is going to be changing as we move into the future. There a lot of attention around drones, unmanned and autonomous vehicles. Aurora has been an industry leader in these technology areas, so this positions us well for whatever that future might be in the aerospace industry.”
Aurora Flight Sciences was founded in 1989 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist John Langford a year after he invented a human-powered aircraft – the Daedalus – that flew from Crete to the waters off Santorini in the Greek Islands.
Langford’s innovations with the lightweight structures required for a human-powered aircraft caught the attention of major aerospace companies, and by 1995 Aurora Flight Sciences had become a major structural supplier for the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk.
As the Global Hawk programme grew, Aurora Flight Sciences branched into developing autonomous systems and electric-powered vehicles, culminating in recent projects for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, such as the Robotic Co-pilot and the unmanned and hybrid-electric XV-24A Lightning Strike.
That portfolio of capabilities led Boeing to come to Aurora Flight Sciences a few months ago with an acquisition offer, Langford says.
“We considered it carefully, and realised this could be a really powerhouse of a combination,” Langford says.
Boeing’s vision for Aurora Flight Sciences is to follow the model set by two previous acquisitions of autonomous companies: Insitu and Liquid Robotics. Both are allowed to operate as independent companies within Boeing’s organization. Unlike those acquisitions, however, Aurora Flight Sciences will not be assigned to a business unit, but report to Hyslop’s corporate organizations.
“The consistency and alignment between the innovation and values of Aurora sync in with the innovation and values of the Boeing company. The gears are going to mesh quite well, I believe,” Hyslop says.
Aurora Flight Sciences and Boeing already work together in many areas, including the development of the composite wing for the 777X aircraft. Aurora Flight Sciences built the first test articles for the composite wing spars a few years ago at its facility in Columbus, Mississippi, Langford says.
The acquisition, which is pending regulatory reviews, bolsters Boeing's ability to keep pace with a rapidly changing innovation landscape in the aviation industry. In San Francisco, Airbus' venture capital arm A3 is working on developing hybrid-electric prototypes not unlike the XV-24A and other hybrid-electric unmanned aircraft projects in Aurora Flight Sciences portfolio.
"People had been wondering what Boeing would do in response to A3," Langford says, "and I think you just found out."