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Unmanned cargo lifter deepens Boeing's push on autonomy

Boeing has unveiled a prototype of an unmanned cargo air vehicle (CAV) that can payloads up to 227kg (500lb) to expand the company’s strategic new focus on autonomous transportation as a short-term commercial opportunity.

The electric-powered CAV flying testbed has completed initial flight tests at Boeing Research and Technology’s Collaborative Autonomous Systems Laboratory in Missouri, Boeing says.

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The CAV will complement the electric-powered, vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) prototype in development by Boeing’s newly-acquired Aurora Flight Sciences. It also may benefit from a package of autonomous software aides supported with recent investments by Boeing’s venture capital arm, HorizonX, including artificial intelligence capabilities by Texas-based SparkCognition, autonomous navigation technology from Pennsylvania-based Near Earth Autonomy and electric propulsion produced by Seattle-based Zunum Aero and Aurora.

“This flying cargo air vehicle represents another major step in our Boeing eVTOL strategy,” says Boeing chief technology officer Greg Hyslop. “We have an opportunity to really change air travel and transport, and we'll look back on this day as a major step in that journey.”

Autonomous VTOL aircraft face a harder task than runway-based unmanned air systems. In addition to navigating safely through air space, an unmanned VTOL aircraft must be able to identify obstacle-free landing sites that can support the weight of the vehicle without a pilot.

“The safe integration of unmanned aerial systems is vital to unlocking their full potential. Boeing has an unmatched track record, regulatory know-how and systematic approach to deliver solutions that will shape the future of autonomous flight,” says Steve Nordlund, Boeing HorizonX vice-president.

Boeing and Aurora have been working on autonomous cargo aircraft for several years, beginning with an unmanned version of the AH-6 Little Bird helicopter. Aurora Flight Sciences also worked with the Office of Naval Research on the autonomous aerial cargo utility system (AACUS) programme.