Boeing plans to acquire Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., a world-class innovator, developer, and manufacturer of advanced aerospace platforms, under an agreement signed by the two companies. Aurora specializes in autonomous systems technologies to enable advanced robotic aircraft for future aerospace applications and vehicles.
Leveraging autonomous systems that include perception, machine learning, and advanced flight control systems, Aurora has designed, produced, and flown more than 30 unmanned air vehicles since the company was founded in 1989. The company is also a leader in the emerging field of electric propulsion for aircraft. During the last decade, Aurora has collaborated with Boeing on the rapid prototyping of innovative aircraft and structural assemblies for both military and commercial applications.
Aurora Flight Sciences’ resume includes a history in the development of advanced autonomous capabilities for vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft. One example is Aurora's work on the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS), an Office of Naval Research (ONR) program whose primary goal is to enable rapid cargo delivery by unmanned, and potentially optionally manned, VTOL aircraft. AACUS is intended for the U.S. Marine Corps.
AACUS provides dynamic contingency planning to the point of landing with goal-based supervisory control by any field personnel with no special training. It will enable Marines to supervise its capability from an intuitive, hand-held, field interface. AACUS objectives are:
- Landing autonomously in unprepared terrain
- Static and dynamic obstacle avoidance
- Real time supervisory control by field personnel
- Aggressive no fly-over approach to landing
- Autonomous in-flight mission re-planning
Aurora's work on the AACUS program has been leveraged to integrate the company’s Tactical Autonomous Aerial Logistics System (TALOS) on a UH-1H helicopter. The TALOS system has been demonstrated on a Boeing H-6U unmanned helicopter flown autonomously, and three different human-piloted Bell 206 aircraft. The TALOS system is not an aircraft, nor is it a robot flying an aircraft. It is transferable intelligence designed with both manned and unmanned aircraft requirements in mind. TALOS can be described as a platform agnostic, scalable autonomy technology that allows for onboard sensing of the surrounding environment, and intelligence that no other system can provide.
1. Aurora’s “Huey” helicopter integrated with TALOS technology for the AACUS program
In March 2016, Aurora LightningStrike won a DARPA-sponsored competition for the design of a new and innovative VTOL aircraft under the Agency’s VTOL X-plane program. LightningStrike, now officially named the XV-24A, is an exotic, unmanned VTOL aircraft with a tilting 60-ft. wing on its aft fuselage and a much shorter tilting canard near its nose. (A canard is a wing configuration on the aircraft.) Aurora’s work on the LightningStrike program is paving new ground for electric-powered aircraft.
Aurora Flight Sciences has already demonstrated a subscale version of the XV-24A. After completing flight tests of this 20% scale demonstrator in spring 2017, an Aurora team that includes engine manufacturers Rolls-Royce North America and Honeywell Aerospace have started building a full-scale version. This 12,000-lb., tilting-wing, tilting-canard VTOL aircraft is expected to be completed in 2019.
Aurora Flight Sciences’ LightningStrike” VTOL X-Plane is a 12,000-lb., tilting-wing, tilting-canard aircraft.
The LightningStrike airframe is unique, and its electric propulsion system is even more unique. This distributed propulsion system will consist of highly integrated, distributed ducted fans that, combined with the synchronous electric drive system, will enhance its hover efficiency and high-speed forward flight. A single Rolls-Royce AE 1107C turboshaft engine mounted in the fuselage and coupled to a gearbox will drive three 1MW Honeywell Aerospace generators to power individual motors driving the fans. At less than 300 pounds, Honeywell’s 1MW generators are five times smaller in size and weight compared with other generators that produce a similar amount of power.
Embedded in the wing and canard will be 24 ducted fans. Eighteen fans about 30 in. in diameter will be in the wing. Six more, measuring just less than 2 ft. in diameter, will be in the canard. Each fan will be driven by its own electric motor. Both the wings and the canards will rotate, to direct fan thrust as needed: rearward for forward flight, downward for hovering and at angles during transition between the two, also allowing the aircraft to rotate or reverse. Each rotor will be controlled separately, enabling the aircraft to maneuver and position itself in flight and hover with maximum efficiency.
Each wing fan will be driven by a 125kW brushless motor, and each canard fan will be propelled by a 90kW brushless motor. The power plant will ensure the aircraft attains a maximum sustained flight speed of up to 400 knots without limiting its range, efficiency, and useful payload. It is expected that it will offer approximately 50% more speed than existing VTOL aircraft.
The propulsion system meets DARPA’s specifications for a VTOL aircraft capable of flying at 300 to 400 knots top sustained speed, with a 15% increase in hover efficiency and the ability to carry a useful load of at least 40% of its gross weight.
Rolls-Royce is bringing to bear capabilities for hybrid electric power generation and distributed control systems, plus experience as an engine supplier on various VTOL platforms—the AE 1107C is the engine that powers the V-22 Osprey—as well as unmanned aircraft including the RQ-4 Global Hawk/MQ-4C Triton and MQ-8B and C Fire Scout.
LightningStrike’s advanced power generation system is an innovative electrical distribution system that helps minimize weight, says Mark Wilson, Rolls-Royce North American Technologies’ chief operating officer. “In a VTOL aircraft, obviously weight and power density is extremely important,” Wilson says. “If you were to look at trying to do this mechanically, it would be very difficult from the number of gearboxes and chassis—things we’d have to have,” he adds. “We’ve come up with an electric synchronous control system that allows you to eliminate some of the conversion boxes to go from ac to dc back to ac again. So we’ve been able to take quite a bit of weight out of the system, but integrating all that system into a new vehicle like this is really the big challenge.”
Rolls-Royce manufactures and distributes power systems for aviation and other industries. It is the world’s second-largest maker of aircraft engines and has major businesses in the marine propulsion and energy sectors. Rolls-Royce was the world's 16th-largest defense contractor in 2011 and 2012 when measured by defense revenues. Rolls-Royce plc acquired the original Allison Engine Company in 1995 and it is now a subsidiary of Rolls-Royce Corporation. The AE 1107C is a 6,000-shp class turboshaft engine is manufactured by Rolls-Royce at its facility in Indianapolis, IN.
Honeywell Aerospace is a manufacturer of aircraft engines and avionics, as well as a producer of auxiliary power units (APUs) and other aviation products. Headquartered in Phoenix, Ariz., it is a division of the Honeywell International conglomerate. It supports a 50/50 mix of commercial and defense contracts.
One of the participating companies is ThinGap, of Camarillo, Calif., which will supply the electric motors. ThinGap designs and manufactures electric motors and generators using technologies that replace the conventional iron core motors with an ironless composite stator and high energy lightweight rotor. Together, these technologies provide unprecedented power and torque density, mechanical flexibility, smoothness, and efficiency.
Another company is Ingenium Aerospace of Rockford, Ill., which will provide actuators. Ingenium Aerospace focuses on providing custom solutions for unique motion control needs. The company delivers cost effective, customized products that meet some of the most challenging requirements including the ability to function in extreme environments while achieving high power density, custom packaging and light weight.
Boeing and Aurora
Once the acquisition goes through, Aurora will operate as a subsidiary under Boeing Engineering Test & Technology, and will be known as Aurora Flight Sciences, A Boeing Company. It will retain an independent operating model while benefiting from Boeing’s resources and position as the leading provider of aerospace products and services.