Years after Detroit’s auto companies joined the race to develop self-driving cars, the world’s biggest plane-makers now say they see a coming revolution in autonomous, on-demand flight.
Chicago-based aerospace manufacturer Boeing has been stepping up its investment in the technologies that enable autonomous flight in recent months.
In April, the company backed Washington State-based Zunum Aero, which develops hybrid-electric engines meant to make short-haul flights more cost-efficient. Then on Oct. 5, the company announced its intention to buy Virginia-based Aurora Flight Sciences, a defense contractor that makes experimental fan-powered and solar-powered drones. And Tuesday, it invested an undisclosed amount of money in a company called Near Earth Autonomy, a Pittsburgh-based robotics firm that spun out of Carnegie Mellon University’s well-known robotics department.
The goal, Boeing’s technology executives say, is to assemble a portfolio of robotic flight technologies that could apply to a range of different plane models; the robotic eyes, ears and organs that would theoretically allow a fully self-piloted robot plane to navigate, react and land without a pilot.
“We believe these are potentially disruptive technology enablers that could change the future of aviation,” said Steve Nordlund, vice president at HorizonX, a venture investment arm of Boeing.
There are no immediate plans to replace commercial pilots with computers. But industry experts say the technology enabling fully-autonomous flight is already here.
Near Earth Autonomy, the latest addition to Boeing’s portfolio, was an early innovator in the space. Founder Sanjiv Singh, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics institute, says he got his start researching autonomous dump trucks and lawn mowers for industrial organizations such as Caterpillar.
That led to some work with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s advanced development agency, among other defense contracts. The company says it partnered with the U.S. Army in 2010 to carry out a simulated casualty rescue mission — essentially recovering a body in contested territory. Such missions are currently carried out by manned Army helicopters and are considered extremely dangerous, sometimes exposing Army personnel to attack. That work led to a broader set of tests around unmanned cargo delivery for the Marines, which it conducted using a Boeing helicopter in 2010.
Singh and his colleagues, who now number about 50, spun those defense contracts out of Carnegie Mellon in 2012 and set Near Earth Autonomy as a stand-alone company.
Today, the company holds about a dozen contracts with Defense Department research agencies and is exploring commercial applications for its autonomous flight technology.
The partnership with Boeing “gives us the resources to mature our technologies so they can grow widely,” Singh said. The companies did not disclose the size or terms of the investment, but Boeing’s venture arm usually makes investments in $10 million to $20 million chunks.
Singh says his researchers have developed self-piloting surveillance drones that can navigate underground passageways, something he wants to sell to mining companies. The company is trying to find a way for its autonomous planes to be able to navigate without the help of GPS satellites, a capability that could make self-piloting aircraft less susceptible to hacks.
Boeing and Near Earth Autonomy said in their official release that they plan to partner on “urban mobility” projects moving forward, which Singh compared to an experimental flying taxi initiative that Uber is working on.
“But we are at the nascent end of aviation becoming democratized,” Singh said. “Maybe it’s not the case that we’re at the Jetsons era, but we could see kind of a transition to that in the near future.”