Boeing is back in the moonshot business.
In a one-hour news conference today, the airframer's vice-president of product development Mike Sinnett briefed reporters on a long list of provocative aerospace technologies on the company's list of research activity.
Only a few years after former Boeing chairman, president and chief executive Jim McNerney said that the company was out of "moonshot" development programmes, Sinnett ran through a list that included autonomous aircraft, truss-braced wings, hybrid-electric-powered freighters, blended wing body aircraft and supersonic jets.
Such concepts are not near-term projects. None are on the list of options for Boeing's New Midsize Airplane (NMA), but they represent the company's long-range vision for technology options beyond the next decade, Sinnett says.
Asked why Boeing was back in public talking about such advanced technologies, Sinnett explained that there were multiple reasons, including the need to attract the brightest engineers seeking to solve the industry's hardest problems.
"We're sharpening and accelerating the work that we do and [there's] a willingness to talk more about what we're doing," Sinnett says.
Boeing has been working on many of the technologies, such as blended wing body and supersonics, for decades, but continues to keep working on exploring the feasibility. As several start-ups pursue the quest of faster-than-sound speed, Sinnett is bullish on the long-term potential of supersonic technology.
"I think it's going to be sooner than 20 years," Sinnett says, adding: "It may not be us doing it in less than 20 years."
A more recent technology pursuit within Boeing is fully autonomous flight. Boeing has acquired two Cessna Caravans to start testing autonomous algorithms to control the aircraft in the air and on the ground in taxi mode. In 2019, Boeing will integrate autonomous control algorithms in a 787-based Boeing ecoDemonstrator, Sinnett says.
"One of the outcomes may be that you just can't do this," Sinnett says. "You can imagine a continuum from where we are today to something that may be zero-pilot. But zero-pilot may not be achievable."