In January 2019, Boeing completed a successful test flight of its autonomous air vehicle prototype in Manassas, Virginia. Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences developed the craft, which uses electric vertical takeoff and landing and is designed for urban flight. The autonomous air vehicle project is part of the Boeing NeXt program, which is targeted toward developing aero technology that can promote next generation urban, regional and global mobility. The centerpiece of the program is global airspace integration for an environment where both autonomous and piloted air vehicles can safely coexist.

“During its first test flight, the autonomous aircraft prototype successfully demonstrated autonomous functionality from takeoff, climb and hover to descent and landing. This was a milestone in our program goal of advancing the future of urban air mobility,” said Steve Nordlund, vice president and general manager of Boeing NeXt.

Boeing’s passenger air vehicle (PAV) prototype is 30 ft. (9.14 m) long and 28 ft. (8.53 m) wide. The craft has eight lift motors and one cruise propeller. The vision is that this PAV will ultimately be able to provide alternate in-city transportation that can reduce the strain on metropolitan travel infrastructures by providing a new transportation alternative that can ease land vehicle traffic congestion and easily connect cities with outlying areas.

“For the PAV craft’s design, Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences adapted and combined the autonomous flight guidance system from the Centaur optionally-piloted aircraft, the perception and collision avoidance system from the AACUS program and the electric propulsion system from the XV-24A demonstrator to create an innovative eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) design,” said Nordlund.

Boeing NeXt program Image courtesy: Boeing

Now that the initial test flight has been successfully completed, subsequent tests will focus on transitioning the vehicle to forward, wing-borne flight. Historically, this is always the biggest engineering challenge for any high-speed vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.

The prospect of both manned and unmanned drones and aircraft complementing each other in urban transport has a wealth of applications—from taxi service to emergency transport of medicines to parcel delivery. At the same time, it also presents a number of challenges that government agencies at all levels will need to work out.

Among these challenges are:

  • Who gets priority on travel lanes at any given point in time;
  • Who patrols airborne traffic to ensure that it complies with regulations;
  • How will airspace be zoned and/or geofenced in low-fly areas;
  • What communications backbone(s) will these crafts use?

Nevertheless, the utility of this aero technology in congested urban areas far outweighs the legal and regulatory issues that will need to be defined or overcome.

“A major challenge is ensuring the global airspace is safe, reliable and robust enough to accommodate diverse vehicles,” said Nordlund. “Through our technology development and investments, as well as our work with industry leaders, new and existing partners and regulators, we are focused on uniting the key enablers to make the future mobility ecosystem a reality.”

The passenger air vehicle prototype will continue to undergo flight testing in 2019. “As we continue to work on urban aerial mobility, we anticipate that its introduction will likely parallel the development of manned aviation,” said Nordlund. “it will be a ‘crawl-walk-run’ trajectory as companies and stakeholders better understand the technology and how best to safely integrate autonomous air vehicles.”

How does the passenger autonomous vehicle fit within Boeing's overall aerospace plans and portfolio?

“Autonomous flight opens up many possibilities,” said Nordlund. “Traffic in dense, urban areas is going to quickly go from two dimensions to three dimensions. It’s estimated that 25 percent of the world’s commute times are greater than 90 minutes, so consider the time savings that are possible when you go to three dimensions.

Even more important than the development of tomorrow’s aircraft is the need to create a new kind of global airspace that can accommodate diverse vehicles – both piloted and autonomous. Through SkyGrid, our joint venture with SparkCognition, we are building a robust airspace management software platform to ensure the safe, secure integration of passenger and cargo air vehicles.”

Demand is already accelerating for moving goods, cargo and people in agile and mobile ways. “Passenger air vehicles could quite possibly be in service in the 2020s to help meet this need,” said Nordlund. “The timeline is dependent on many factors, including airspace management, customer acceptance and infrastructure… Meanwhile, we are working with regulatory authorities and are continuing to work for the safe integration of autonomous air vehicles in the national and global airspace.”