Aurora Flight Sciences is quietly developing its advanced air mobility technology, despite longer-term plans for this sector being somewhat in limbo due to budget cuts at Boeing, its parent company. June 2 will mark the second anniversary of an accident in which its Passenger Air Vehicle (PAV) eVTOL technology demonstrator was badly damaged in a crash during flight testing. Plans to resume this work have since been suspended indefinitely.
According to president and CEO Per Beith, the company’s Virginia-based engineering team is still working to apply the all-electric PAV’s technology to several other platforms that could use a mix of propulsion systems and varying degrees of autonomous flight capability. “We built two [PAV] vehicles and we were also working on a hybrid-electric version,” he told FutureFlight.
He said that these models are all still in the Aurora hangars and that work will be stepped up as new funding becomes available. “We may fly the PAV again or we could migrate its technology to other platforms,” Beith said.
In September 2020, Boeing announced the closure of the Boeing NeXt unit, of which Aurora was a part, having been acquired by the aerospace giant in October 2017. The company, which has been rebuilding a balance sheet battered by the Covid crisis and the long-standing problems with its 737 Max airliner, said that Aurora would continue to be a subsidiary of the Boeing group.
Aerospace engineering veteran John Langford formed Aurora Flight Sciences in 1989, and it quickly established a strong reputation as a hothouse for fast-tracking innovation for unmanned aerial systems. It played a leading role in key military programs, such as the Global Hawk and MQ25 military drones, as well as groundbreaking developments for NASA, such as a demonstrator vehicle to prepare for a mission to Mars.
Today, these defense-related activities are still important to Aurora, as has been Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-funded work such as the development of the XV-24A Lightning Strike tiltwing aircraft. “We’re still at the front end of military research with the Air Force Research Lab and DARPA,” Beith explained. “We still run at the speed of Aurora but benefit from the scale of Boeing to solve problems for customers.”
Despite the troubles faced by his parent company, Beith said that the Boeing acquisition greatly expanded the scope of his company’s business model, getting it engaged in advanced air mobility. It has also gained new revenue streams from activities such as advanced composites for aircraft as diverse as the Global Hawk, Sikorsky’s CH-53 helicopter, and the Gulfstream G500 business jet, with manufacturing plants in West Virginia and Kentucky.
When it comes to advanced air mobility, or as he calls it “future mobility,” Beith said the emerging sector still faces significant technological challenges. “It’s really about getting to the market with the capability to prove that it [an eVTOL aircraft] is safe,” he reflected.
Giving little more than a glimpse of how its ambitions in this field are progressing, Aurora continues to evaluate how to achieve a winning formula for propulsion (hybrid-electric for now, it says). “The energy density for batteries just doesn’t compare yet [to existing propulsion systems],” Beith said. “Yes, hydrogen is a possibility, but it’s still early, Airbus is investing big in that but how viable is it? We’re looking at it, but for eVTOL use, it hasn’t matured yet.”
Beith seems more convinced by the case for fully autonomous operations. “To get [advanced air mobility] to market at scale there just are not enough pilots, and it’s also a safer solution to use artificial intelligence and machine learning,” he concluded. “We have to prove that out, and we have already built a system where we put a robot in the copilot seat that can be optionally piloted. We’ve got almost a decade’s worth of investment in that.”
Meanwhile, Boeing remains committed to its Wisk joint venture with Kitty Hawk, and its Cora two-seat eVTOL appears to be advancing well. Aurora has nothing like the visibility of that part of the Boeing empire and appears to prefer it that way as it banks on its strong technological track record and whatever secrets it still has tucked away in those Virginia hangars.