First Flights to the Future

From new air vehicles to solar airplanes and unmanned helicopters, Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences is building autonomous aircraft to reimagine the future of flight.

Some of them have names lifted right out of Greek mythology—Odysseus, Centaur, Orion. Yet they provide a glimpse of the future of flight. A passenger air vehicle, a solar airplane, an autonomous helicopter and more.

They’re all being built by the people of Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing subsidiary that designs and builds autonomous aircraft. “We’re creating advanced autonomous flight technologies that will change the world,” said Kia Zivari, Aurora’s autonomy integration and test center project lead.

PAV

One of those autonomous flight vehicles is a passenger air vehicle, or PAV, a multirotor aircraft designed and developed for Boeing NeXt, which is leading the safe and responsible introduction of on-demand mobility. A prototype of the PAV completed a controlled takeoff, hover and landing during its first flight test in January. It’s currently undergoing additional testing.


Engineers Michael Humphrey (left) and Scott McNee test parts on the PAV. “I enjoy walking across innovation in all fields,” Humphrey said. “I like to design and test, to do all things, and Aurora does that in leaps and bounds.”

Engineers Michael Humphrey (left) and Scott McNee

Mechanic Jose Mojica (left) and design engineer Sara Fortea Altava work on an air taxi beam for the PAV. “What we’re doing is so cool,” Altava said. “It’s cutting edge. I’m aware that this is the beginning of something big.”

Mechanic Jose Mojica (left) and design engineer Sara Fortea Altava

Odysseus

Another of those autonomous flight vehicles is Odysseus, Aurora’s sleek unmanned solar plane that resembles a flying wing. Powered by advanced solar cells and built with lightweight materials, Odysseus’ persistence enables a range of missions and operations across communication, connectivity and intelligence.

Odysseus consists of a 243-foot (74-meter) wing spar comparable to one used on a 777, but it has the overall weight of a smart car.

Mor Gilad and technician Nico Acha-Orbea

Systems engineer Mor Gilad (foreground) and technician Nico Acha-Orbea inspect work on an Odysseus wing spar.

Centaur

Another vehicle Aurora developed is Centaur, an aircraft configured for autonomous flight. Centaur offers three modes of operation: manned, unmanned and augmented piloting.


Carrie Haase, Aurora’s head of flight operations and a private pilot, demonstrates how Centaur can operate autonomously by someone on board monitoring the flight or by a ground-based operator using a laptop.

Carrie Haase in Auroras cockpit.

Boeing and Aurora are testing detect-and-avoid technology on Centaur. The test results will help ensure the safe integration of autonomous systems into the global airspace and provide proof points for future regulatory certifications.

 testing detect-and-avoid technology on Centaur.

Small Unmanned Aircraft System

Engineer Juha Turalba makes an adjustment to what’s known as a counter Small Unmanned Aircraft System, an unmanned aerial system designed to intercept another such system. The aircraft contains a vision system and other sensors that enable it to autonomously intercept other drones.

Igor Janjic, a software engineer at Aurora

Igor Janjic, a software engineer at Aurora, checks to make sure the “seeker” software on the counter Small Unmanned Aircraft System operates as expected. The software enables the aircraft to detect a target drone and autonomously intercept it with no operator guidance.

Small Unmanned Aircraft System

The counter Small Unmanned Aircraft System undergoes flight testing frequently to improve reliability and accuracy.

Boeing purchased Aurora in 2017, and the partnership has evolved quickly into one that could open up a whole new world of flight. That’s how mechanical engineer Betsy Jasper views it.

“I do see the day,” she said, “and I think it will be 20 years from now and it will be commonplace, it’ll be like 'Star Wars' and everybody will be flying all over the place.”

Story by

Dan Raley

Photos by

Bob Ferguson, Bob Cherouny, David Spiegel and Juha Turalba

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