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DARPA approval clears Boeing's transition to new air taxi approach

Virginia-based Aurora Flight Sciences is now poised to transition an all-electric version of the XV-24A Lightning Strike to the commercial air taxi market.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has agreed to allow the newly-acquired Boeing subsidiary to transition government-funded technology - such as an electric-powered distributed propulsion system – for commercial applications, Aurora announced on 24 April.

The announcement comes a week after Aurora founder and chief executive John Langford acknowledged the company was moving away from the lift-and-cruise-configured prototype demonstrated in flight tests last year.

“What we are doing is somewhat related to those things but not exactly identical,” Langford said on 17 April, addressing a luncheon of the National Aeronautics Association in Washington DC.

For several years, Aurora has invested heavily in autonomy, electric propulsion and vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft designs, which are three technologies that form the heart of a global race to develop a new class of electric air taxis.

If the economic, technological and regulatory barriers can be overcome, the market opportunity is vast. A recent Goldman Sachs market forecast cited by Langford included an optimistic scenario with demand for air taxis worldwide amounting to $70 billion annually by 2035, requiring overall production capacity of 50,000 new aircraft a year.

“You have to go back to World War II to see [aircraft] production numbers like this,” Langford says.

To prepare for the market, Aurora has pursued two different options. Last year, the company unveiled a prototype air taxi in a lift-and-cruise configuration, meaning upward-facing rotors used for vertical flight and fixed propellers facing forward for cruise flight.

Separately, Aurora also completed testing of a subscale prototype of the tilt-wing XV-24A. DARPA’s schedule calls for beginning flight tests of the full scale, hybrid-electric XV-24A next year, according to budget documents. The 4,540kg (10,000lb) XV-24A is far too large to operate as an air taxi, but the 136kg subscale prototype offers a more representative platform.

Aurora plans to deliver a “minimum viable product” by 2020 for a large-scale demonstration, involving multiple vehicles and controlled centrally by a command centre. If the technology proves feasible, Aurora could deliver a viable, piloted air taxi by 2023, but autonomous functions would come later as they are approved by regulators, Langford says.

Although that ideal progression may not go exactly as planned, Aurora’s staff feels prepared financially for the long-haul with Boeing’s support.

“This is not a market that a Silicon Valley startup is going to be se able to see through in my humble opinion,” Langford says. “That is partly why we threw in with Boeing.”

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