Is Boeing Finally Going to Stop Making Boring Airplanes?
Roopinder Tara posted on November 14, 2017 |
An acquisition of super-innovative Aurora may turn conservative airliners around.

Commercial jetliners all seeking to act like each other implies a serious lack of innovation in aerospace companies.

Even frequent flyers, even those who love airplanes, are unable to tell what plane they are in. They cheat by looking at the safety card. From the outside, a modern airliner looks like another, except for the airline’s branding. They fly and take off the same way. They have the same basic construction. They all have human pilots. The last big innovation was the jet engine.

Normal jet engines under the wings but a hybrid engine in the back. The Single-aisle Turboelectric AiRCraft with Aft Boundary Layer propulsion (STARC-ABL) concept developed by NASA with assistance from Aurora. (Image courtesy of NASA.)
Normal jet engines under the wings but a hybrid engine in the back. The Single-aisle Turboelectric AiRCraft with Aft Boundary Layer propulsion (STARC-ABL) concept developed by NASA with assistance from Aurora. (Image courtesy of NASA.)

Even our roadways sport more diversity and innovation. There are motorbikes, cars and trucks. They can be on gasoline, diesel or electric. You can tell one model from another.

Maybe the culprit is complacency. Boeing has only recently had big competition with Europe’s Airbus. But Airbus competed with planes that were basically similar to Boeing. They are difficult to tell apart.

But a recent acquisition by Boeing of Aurora Flight Sciences may mean the company is waking up from complacency and may go boldly into a world of vertical takeoff, unmanned flight (gasp! flying with out a pilot?) and electric propulsion. The latter is partially electric, a hybrid design. Let’s not go crazy here.

Who Is Aurora?

Aurora Flight Sciences beat two of the biggest aerospace companies in the world, Boeing and Lockheed, in DARPA competitions. Boeing did not take this lying down. It announced that it would acquire Aurora last month.

Aurora projects are some of the most advanced and successful in the aviation world. No mere startup, Aurora has won multimillion dollar contracts for research in vertical takeoff flight and unmanned flight (unmanned aerial vehicles or drones). In August, Aurora may have won its biggest contract ever, an almost half billion-dollar contract from the U.S. Air force. This would have been a small win for Boeing, but for the relatively teeny Aurora with an estimated annual revenue of $137 million, this was a windfall.

Innovative enough for you? An Aurora, Roll Royce and Honeywell project, called Vertical Strike for military application, is a vertical takeoff and landing aircraft with 24 hybrid-electric fans on wings that swivel. The project is funded by DARPA. (Image courtesy of Aurora Flight Sciences.)
Innovative enough for you? An Aurora, Roll Royce and Honeywell project, called Vertical Strike for military application, is a vertical takeoff and landing aircraft with 24 hybrid-electric fans on wings that swivel. The project is funded by DARPA. (Image courtesy of Aurora Flight Sciences.)

Most of Aurora’s projects exist in the company’s imaginations and artist renderings. But that seemed to be enough for NASA and DARPA, which together declared Aurora superior to Boeing and Lockheed Martin for taking the next step in the VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) X-Plane.

Aurora has had a long-term relationship with MIT, including nine years of cooperation on the school’s student robotics program for middle schoolers. Aurora has a research center in nearby Cambridge, Mass., and Dayton, Ohio, and Mountain View, Calif.

Hybrid Airplanes

With so much new technology being explored in one company, hybrid combustion-electric propulsion in airplanes seems almost buried in the company’s talent portfolio. But with fuel cost being the first- or second-most costly items for airlines (depending on fluctuating petroleum prices), it only makes sense that Boeing would place hybrid flight technology on the front burner.

Electric planes can cost as little as $3 per flying hour, compared to the $40 that a normal jet engine guzzles per hour. Planes can go fully electric, but because of the low power density of even the most potential batteries, they still need a boost (instead of total reliance) from batteries, which is a focus of research for both Boeing and Airbus.

One version of a hybrid airliner looks like your typical airliner—except for one massive tail-mounted, electric-powered engine. NASA has picked Aurora to help develop its Single-aisle Turboelectric AiRCraft with Aft Boundary Layer propulsion (STARC-ABL) concept.

The proportion of electrical-assistance hybrid technology is low now (only one-third for the STARC-ABL), but it is expected to increase as battery technology advances.

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