Boeing is actively pursuing the development of autonomous technology, which it sees benefiting virtually all of its future commercial, defence, space and other programmes.
Several existing Boeing programmes already incorporate a high degree of autonomy, says Charles Toups, vice-president and general manager of Boeing Research & Technology.
He listed examples such as the 787’s load alleviation system, which automatically moves the jet's control surfaces to minimise turbulence, the secretive X-37 reusable space plane, and the company’s MQ-25 Stingray – an unmanned air vehicle that is competing to become a carrier-based unmanned air system that the US Navy will use as an in-flight refueller to extend the range of manned fighters.
In addition, the company’s Insitu UAV unit makes considerable use of autonomy. Another application for autonomy is a cargo air vehicle. Fitted with eight counter-rotating propellers and specially-designed batteries, the system can lift cargoes of 250-300lb (110-140kg). It was developed in just 93 days for a commercial customer who Toups declined to name.
Boeing’s foremost priority in the area of autonomy, he adds, is safety. Apart from making autonomous vehicles safe while operating around people, such as in cities, they can also help with difficult, dangerous jobs, such as carrying supplies to soldiers on the battlefield, to flying out to well heads in remote areas – work already conducted by Insitu UAVs.
One futuristic area where Boeing has a strong interest is urban mobility, as evidenced by the company’s 2017 acquisition of Aurora Flight Sciences.
Toups also touched on how autonomy could benefit commercial aviation, specifically on the topic of whether airliner flight crews can be reduced to just one person, or done away with altogether.
He says doing away with commercial pilots is “off the table” for the time being, but is certainly possible in the long term when autonomous vehicles, such as cars, become more commonplace. He calls this “Level-5” autonomy, which does away entirely with the steering wheel and other controls. In such a future, people are entirely comfortable with machines controlling vehicles.
For commercial aircraft, Toups also feels that full autonomy will first be applied to cargo aircraft.
Some work is taking place in regard to full aircraft autonomy, with a particular challenge of getting such an aircraft to taxi around an airport safely.
The company sees autonomy as a crucial area, and Toups says it will continue to develop capabilities internally and through acquisitions. Investments that contribute to Boeing’s capabilities in this area are SparkCognition (machine learning), Zunum (hybrid electric propulsion), Near Earth Autonomy (autonomous flight), and C360 Technologies (augmented and virtual reality).