Boeing takes another step into the pilotless plane market

Boeing chiefs say the deal is a move to align itself with future trends in aviation technology.

By Aaron Gregg / The Washington Post

Chicago-based aviation giant Boeing stepped up its investment in autonomous technology Thursday when it announced plans to buy Aurora Flight Sciences, a Manassas, Virginia-based company that develops experimental self-piloting aircraft. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Boeing executives described the deal as a move to align itself with future trends in aviation technology.

“This really represents a new chapter for the Boeing company because the aerospace industry is going to be changing as the it moves into the future,” said Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s senior vice president of engineering, test and technology.

He declined to go into detail about how Aurora’s technologies would be integrated into Boeing’s business.

Aurora is noted for beating out some of the defense industry’s biggest companies, including Boeing, on advanced research and development contracts. One is the XV-24A LightningStrike, an experimental fan-propelled drone funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s weapons research agency. Another DARPA-funded effort is a zero-emissions aircraft powered completely through energy captured by wing-mounted solar panels.

Other technologies being worked on at Aurora could have applications in Boeing’s commercial sector, including an experimental delivery drone being developed in partnership with Uber.

Boeing officials played up Aurora’s expertise in designing fully autonomous flight systems, suggesting the Boeing could use Aurora’s expertise to integrate artificial intelligence into the way the company’s planes are piloted.

“It’s hard to know where the future is going but I think we can see where the vector is pointed, and we want to be ready,” Hyslop said.

The merger is still subject to review by Pentagon officials, who are closely watching the defense industry as it undergoes a wave of consolidation. A few weeks ago, Northrop Grumman moved to buy aerospace manufacturer Orbital ATK for $7.8 billion cash while assuming $1.4 billion in debt. That merger came on the heels of a $30 billion megadeal between United Technologies and Rockwell Collins.

Boeing has commonly used acquisitions to give it a foothold in emerging next-generation technology markets. The company gave its unmanned systems offerings a boost in 2008 when it bought a company called Insitu, which now operates as a wholly-owned subsidiary within Boeing. More recently, Boeing bought Liquid Robotics, a company that develops robotic submarine technology.

The newly-acquired Aurora unit is to similarly function as an independent research and development company owned by Boeing.

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