Air Taxis Are on the Horizon with Boeing’s Test of Autonomous Plane

Xconomy Seattle — 

Many aviators use autopilot to control the trajectory of aircraft between takeoff and landing, but Boeing is among those in the industry seeking to advance autonomous flying technology even further.

Boeing (NYSE: BA), which is headquartered in Chicago but has roots and extensive operations in the Seattle area, announced this week it conducted a successful test flight of what the company calls an “autonomous passenger air vehicle” prototype.

The plane carried no passengers on its test flight, during which the electric plane ascended several dozen feet into the air, hovered for a few seconds, then smoothly returned to ground. However, the technology Boeing is developing alongside its industry partners and regulatory agencies offers the promise of one day being used in air taxis that help people get around by taking them on short flights—with no need to have a pilot aboard.

The test flight took place in Manassas, VA. That’s the home base of Aurora Flight Sciences, a developer and manufacturer of “aerospace platforms and autonomous systems” that Boeing acquired in late 2017. Aurora’s team designed and developed the prototype tested this week, Boeing says.

Boeing says the aircraft can fly up to 50 miles between charges, and measures 30 feet long with a wingspan of 28 feet. It’s not clear how many passengers the test vehicle’s cabin can fit. (Boeing says it’s also developing an unmanned, electric cargo plane designed to transport loads weighing up to 500 pounds; that vehicle is scheduled to take its first outdoor flight later this year.)

Boeing’s passenger plane prototype has several horizontally mounted propellers on beams that run beneath the wings. There’s also a single vertical propeller attached to the vehicle’s rear; that part is designed to propel the plane forward, though it was not used as part of the test this week.

“Future flights will test forward, wing-borne flight, as well as the transition phase between vertical and forward-flight modes,” Boeing says in a press release, which did not give the dates of future tests.

Boeing competitor Airbus is developing an electric, self-piloted aircraft of its own. About a year ago, the company said its Vahana plane completed its first full-scale test flight, which took place in Pendleton, OR. Airbus is developing the Vahana at the company’s “A3 by Airbus” outpost in Silicon Valley.

Boeing has made a series of moves to position itself for the high-tech future of the aviation industry. In 2012, it acquired Pittsburgh-based software company Inmedius. More recently, Boeing leased office space in an MIT-owned building in Cambridge, MA, where it plans to open a facility focused on autonomous aircraft and related technologies by the end of next year.

Boeing has also invested in tech startups through its venture capital fund, Boeing HorizonX Ventures. One recent investment the fund participated in was Digital Alloys’ $12.9 million Series B funding round, which the Burlington, MA-based metal 3D printing company raised in August.