First it was self-driving cars and now we’re talking about autonomous flight as if we’re ordering pizza. It’s been all over the news and talks around the watercooler are more interesting than ever. Boeing’s acquisition of Aurora and a stake in Zunum Aero is set to take place this year. The overall consensus is that the aerospace industry is in for a major change.

Battle for Autonomous Flight – Boeing versus Airbus

Boeing’s plans to acquire Aurora builds on its current work with the company on commercial and military equipment. Already modern day airplanes have sophisticated computer systems with vital autonomous functions. But that’s not enough as the idea is completely autonomous flight including take-off, flight and landing.

It’s no longer just a concept, a robot has already landed a Boeing 747 in a flight simulator in May. The idea is to have a robot, assisted with AI, to back up a pilot. It will do so by controlling the pedals, fly and take over in case of an emergency and even land. It begs the question, “Would you get on a plane knowing the pilot is a robot?”

The ongoing rivalry between Boeing and Airbus is particularly interesting now with Aurora working on a flying taxi system. In April, Uber asked Aurora to develop its on-demand urban air transportation system. Their goal is to deliver 50 autonomous aircraft for testing by 2020 and according to reports, they are “well within reach.”

At the same time, Airbus is working to develop its flying taxi system, Vahana, by the end of the year. The other concept in collaboration with Italdesign is called Pop.UP and could travel between cities. The Pop.UP system addresses the mobility challenges mega-cities face which is becoming more challenging for commuters. The modular system makes use of ground and airspace combining a two-seater ground vehicle with the freedom and speed of a VTOL aircraft.

Autonomous Flight with Boeing and Aurora

To summarise, Aurora focuses on autonomous flight systems designed to turn science fiction into reality. In fact, they’ve been developing an autonomous military VTOL aircraft, the LightningStrike XV-24A. It’s funded by DARPA and the USAF where a prototype ran a successful test flight earlier this year.

For those who thought autonomous vehicles are a new concept, Aurora has actually designed and flown over 30 unmanned air vehicles since their inception. It seems robotic aircraft and vehicles are as much a part of aviation as oxygen is to water.

Boeing and Zunum Aero Hybrids

As for Zunum Aero, they work on hybrid electric planes with a clear vision to transform aviation starting as early as 2022. Backed by Boeing’s HorizonX fund and Jet Blue’s Technology Ventures, the plan is to drastically change regional flight. This will be particularly practical in distances of up to 1 000 miles where the current options are limited. The new technology could allow planes to bypass big regional airports, avoiding the long queues, layovers and at a lower rate.

Zunum Aero expects to begin test flights in 2019 and has hired experts who have worked on cutting edge technology for Boeing and Rolls-Royce. The eventuality is fully electric flight and they’re not far off. Current battery technology only allows sufficient energy storage for around 100 miles (160 km) but as the technology improves, so will the range. The company believes by 2030 their planes will carry 50 passengers with a range up to 1 000 miles (1 609 km).

The further we push ourselves and the more advanced technology becomes, autonomous flight will transform the way we work and live. More energy and cost efficient, environmentally friendly and convenience are but a few advantages.

What are your thoughts on autonomous flight? How do you think it will affect the future of aviation and aerospace?

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