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The eyes of the business world have turned to Le Bourget in Paris. It’s the location of the Paris Air Show, where one of the hot topics has been the development of passenger air vehicles (PAVs).

Soaring city populations around the globe are creating huge problems for urban ecosystems, with commuting and deliveries and blocking up roads. Quite literally, cities are running out of room.

So what can be done? The simple answer: take to the air; more specifically, aerial autonomous on-demand mobility. And who better to provide this kind of innovation than aviation giant Boeing, with over 100 years of experience in flight. 

Despite its recent grounding of 737 Max jets due to safety concerns, Boeing is pushing ahead with PAVs through its NeXt division, which will shape next-generation travel and evolve the transportation ecosystem to support safe, seamless, efficient mobility.

Earlier this year Auto Futures spoke to Steve Nordlund, Vice President and General Manager of Boeing NeXt, to find out more. 

Building A Future With Limitless Possibilities

The PAV is one of many platforms that Boeing is exploring as it builds a future with limitless possibilities.

According to Nordlund, Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences adapted and combined the autonomous flight guidance system from the Centaur optionally-piloted aircraft, the perception and collision avoidance system from the AACUS programme and the electric propulsion system from the XV-24A demonstrator to create the innovative eVTOL design.

“During its first test flight, the prototype successfully demonstrated autonomous functionality from takeoff, climb and hover to descent and landing a milestone on Boeing’s journey toward advancing the future of urban air mobility,” he says. “Subsequent tests will work toward transitioning the vehicle to forward, wing-borne flight, which is historically the biggest engineering challenge for any high-speed VTOL aircraft.”

Autonomy is opening up new possibilities to enhance transport capabilities and improve lives. Boeing continues to pioneer these technologies, setting a new standard for safe, successful missions that amplify human capabilities, and revolutionise how we connect, protect and explore our world.

“Even more important than the development of tomorrow’s aircraft is the need to create a new kind of global airspace that can accommodate diverse vehicles, both piloted and autonomous,” Nordlund continues.

“Through SkyGrid, our joint venture with SparkCognition, we will build a robust airspace management software platform to ensure the safe, secure integration of passenger and cargo air vehicles.”

Achieving Safe, Reliable Autonomous flight

There is enough uncertainty surrounding the safety of autonomous cars, let alone flying vehicles. So, it is vital that companies working in the space develop safe, reliable autonomous flight, both inside and outside the vehicle.

Nordlund says that although Boeing has the technologies to enable safe and efficient autonomous flight – already demonstrating its capabilities with test flights – the most important challenge surrounds the ecosystem. A network must be established if this innovation is to take off.

“The bigger challenge is ensuring that the global airspace is safe, reliable and robust enough to accommodate diverse vehicles. Boeing is uniquely positioned to navigate these complexities while prioritising safety,” he says.

“Through our technology development and investments, as well as our work with industry leaders, new and existing partners, and regulators, we are uniting the key enablers to make the future mobility ecosystem a reality.”

In addition, it is important for companies to work with governments to roll out flying vehicles safely and effectively. Without this, there is no chance of urban air transport, no matter how developed the flying vehicles are.

Nordlund echoes this safety concern: “There is a real need to understand and safely manage what is in the air. If the system isn’t safe, it won’t be adopted or accepted. Through SkyGrid, we are building the aerial operating system that will make the airspace safe, leveraging artificial intelligence technologies and environmental inputs to deliver safe traffic corridors and routes for unmanned aircraft users.”

With speculation growing around vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (VTOLs), especially after a number of horrific accidents last year, Boeing will channel its heritage and safety focus into its autonomous vehicle, making sure that it builds redundancies into its systems to ensure safe operations.

The Future Is Now

Future mobility solutions such as flying taxis will have an overwhelming effect on day-to-day life in urban environments, allowing a new level of transport for consumers in world cities. By introducing a new dimension, Boeing can relieve dense urban areas of congestion and commuting times which, for 25% of the world, exceeds 90 minutes.

“Consider the time savings that are possible when you go to three dimensions,” adds Nordlund. “We are developing connected transport solutions that will make it faster and easier to connect with your world.”

VTOLs are starting to appear all over the internet and at events such as the Consumer Electronics Show, the largest technology event in the world. However, not all of these will succeed, so Boeing needs to leverage its expertise to be competitive and lead the new market.

Nordlund believes that introducing large numbers of autonomous air vehicles to an air traffic management system that never anticipated this level of disruption requires creative thinking, problem-solving and innovation.

“That’s where we fit in,” he says. “Boeing is committed to leveraging our experience and expertise gained in over 100 years in the aviation industry to continue to work with regulators to enable safe, critically-needed airspace access for these vehicles.”

By taking a holistic approach that combines its aviation experience and strength in technological innovation with new business models, Boeing will aim to lay the foundation for the future mobility ecosystem.

“The future of mobility – moving goods, moving cargo, moving people – that future is happening now. It’s going to accelerate over the next five years; cargo and passenger air vehicles could quite possibly be in service in the early 2020s. The timeline is dependent on many other factors, including airspace management, customer acceptance and infrastructure.

The introduction of urban aerial mobility will likely parallel the development of manned aviation; it will be a ‘crawl-walk-run’ trajectory as companies and stakeholders better understand the technology and how best to safely integrate air vehicles.”

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