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Boeing broadens bet on autonomous tech with new partnership

Boeing will invest and partner with a commercial spin-off of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute that specialises in in developing sensors for unmanned aircraft to avoid collisions.

HorizonX, Boeing's venture capital arm, is focusing the new partnership with Near Earth Autonomy on the urban mobility market, a market sector that has received intense interest yet faces significant technical and regulatory obstacles to develop.

"This partnership will accelerate technology solutions that we feel will be key to unlocking emerging markets of autonomous flight," said Boeing HorizonX vice-president Steve Nordlund.

Boeing announced the new collaboration two weeks after agreeing to acquire Aurora Flight Sciences, a company with a portfolio of innovations in aerodynamics, aircraft structures and autonomy.

As developments in autonomous controls, electric propulsion and vertical lift accelerate, Boeing has joined several industry leaders and new entrants pursuing an opportunity to convert trips within cities normally taken by cars into small air taxis.

Near Earth Autonomy could help Boeing address two of the key technical barriers: avoiding collisions and finding a safe place to land without a human pilot aboard.

The start-up's work in the field dates back several years to its roots within Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. In 2010, the institute joined a team with Piasecki Aircraft and the US Army to demonstrate a fully autonomous flight using an MDHI MD530F light single helicopter.

Carnegie Mellon also partnered with the Office of Naval Research on an experiment that demonstrated a small quadrotor could map fires and identify victims on a smoke-filled naval vessel. The service’s research arm is working with Near Earth on developing an autonomous cargo delivery aircraft for the US Marines Corps.

Since launching last April, Boeing’s HorizonX venture capital arm has invested in startups exploring augmented reality technologies and hybrid electric commuter planes, but the Near Earth investment marks HorizonX’s firsts autonomous technology venture. As its aerospace rival Airbus looks to gain a foothold in the burgeoning air taxi market with its Urban Air Mobility division, Boeing’s new partnership Near Earth Autonomy will also pursue future air mobility products.

Boeing's announcement emphasises that the investment will explore both defence and commercial technologies. Separately, Boeing Commercial Airplanes is experimenting with developing new autonomous modes for airliners, including adding an auto-takeoff mode in future aircraft. Boeing's HorizonX also has invested in start-up aircraft designer Zunum, which is developing a 12-seat hybrid-electric aircraft with a cockpit designed to accommodate single-crew and fully autonomous operations.

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