When considering Boeing’s recent acquisition of Aurora Flight Sciences, which was officially completed November 8, the question is not why a company like Boeing would be interested in such a 550-employee company, but what took so long.
The technology-driven Aurora—described by Boing as a “world-class innovator, developer, and manufacturer of advanced aerospace platforms and autonomous systems”—has been involved in numerous NASA programs since its founding in 1989, and as recently as October 24 announced that it had been awarded a contract to perform a comprehensive evaluation of NASA’s Single-aisle Turboelectric Aircraft with Aft Boundary Layer propulsion (STARC-ABL) aircraft concept, a subsonic commercial tube-and-wing aircraft with conventional under-wing N+3 gas-turbine engines and a ducted, boundary layer ingesting (BLI) tail cone propulsor driven by a turboelectric propulsion system. Aurora will assist NASA in validating the system level performance of the STARC-ABL aircraft.
Aurora’s role within Boeing will fall under Boeing Engineering, Test & Technology as a subsidiary called Aurora Flight Sciences, A Boeing Company, and it seems the smaller company is definitively being embraced as an enabler for the acceleration of autonomous technology, including along such areas as machine learning and advanced flight control systems.
It is well equipped to do so with its expertise in both innovative electric aircraft designs and in high-performance aircraft for commercial applications. The company is also currently leading the development of DARPA’s XV-24A LightningStrike, a 12,000-lb hybrid-electric aircraft with 3 MW of electric power driving 24 electric fans. Aurora recently flew a fully autonomous, battery-powered subscale version of the XV-24A, which also serves as the basis for Aurora’s work on urban mobility platforms. In April 2017 Aurora was selected as one of Uber’s industrial partners for the Uber Elevate program.
Aurora is also developing the D8, a commercial airliner with a "double-bubble" fuselage design for the 150-180 seat market. It features engines that are integrated into the back of the fuselage, whose double-bubble design also allows for smaller wings. Using composite structures, BLI, and high levels of autonomy, the D8 is expected to provide up to 50% reductions in fleet-wide fuel burn over designs currently in use. The D8 is being developed through the FAA CLEEN II program, the NASA New Aviation Horizons program, and Aurora internal funding.