Boeing’s expanding tech ambitions
By Tom Risen|February 2018
Boeing’s Dennis Muilenburg describes the 101-year-old aerospace giant as “more innovative than we’ve ever been in our history.” He’s definitely been busy in his roles as chairman, president and CEO. The acquisition last year of Virginia-based Aurora Flight Sciences aims to further the company’s development of electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, or eVTOLs, with the potential for services ranging from cargo delivery to sky taxis. In January, Boeing unveiled a prototype electric autonomous quadcopter aimed at the cargo delivery market. That same week, Boeing at the 2018 AIAA SciTech Forum in Florida unveiled the concept for a hypersonic plane aimed at flying faster than Mach 5. On top of all that, Boeing has mentioned a “potential combination” with Brazil-based Embraer amid a growing demand for regional commercial flights. I spoke with Muilenburg (above right) on the phone while he was at Boeing headquarters in Chicago and I was at the AIAA SciTech Forum.
Read a compressed version here or see the transcript.
IN HIS WORDS
Boeing hypersonic concept plane
That’s just another example of the advancements we’re making there. I think you’re familiar with our earlier work on the X-51 hypersonic vehicle, where we’re beginning to prove out the ramjet propulsion technology, where we set some new records in terms of performance capability. We’re leveraging that propulsion technology for next-generation configurations, including the hypersonic airplane that you saw at [AIAA SciTech]. If we look at the future of flight, we do see an opportunity at some point of having an economically viable supersonic or hypersonic capability with the idea that you could travel anywhere in the world in one to two hours.
Commercial supersonic flight
The key there will be the economic viability for broad participation in that marketplace. With airplanes like the 787 Dreamliner, our ability to basically connect any city pair in the world efficiently provides a lot of great economic options for our customers. Similarly as the 777X comes into the marketplace, it will again provide another 10 to 15 percent operating cost advantage. We’re going to need to see a next step in propulsion system efficiency and economic viability to make a supersonic jet more broadly attractive to customers, although in the nearer term, we could see some business traveler interest.
We see an evolving marketplace for low Earth orbit space travel. Right now we’re working on our CST-100 Starliner with NASA that will provide transportation to the space station. We anticipate beyond that, we’ll see additional low Earth orbit destinations evolve and at some point, an economically viable low Earth orbit space travel network. Our X-37 spaceplane is setting long endurance records for autonomous space operations.
Fully electric flight
The exact timeline around that is difficult to predict, but I would suggest it’s going to move faster than any of us might anticipate, given the amount of capital flowing into electrical power technologies. We’ve made an investment in Zunum [Aero] technology and are working with them today on a hybrid electric-powered and then all-electric-powered regional jet. We anticipate that the entry point for the electrically or hybrid electric-powered airplanes is to start with those smaller-scale airplanes.
Medium-range regional jet ambitions
Passenger traffic [is] globally growing 6 to 7 percent a year. Every year in Asia alone, we have 100 million people who fly for the first time. Less than 20 percent of the world’s population has ever taken even a single flight. More than 80 percent of the world still has to fly for the first time. We anticipate you’re going to see strong demand for new aircraft, around 41,000 new airplanes for the next 20 years. We do see the single-aisle segment, our 737-class airplane, as the strongest segment within the overall air traffic projections. We see regional airplanes as a strong growth sector. We also see wide-body airplanes as a strong area of growth, and our 787 and 777X [commercial planes] are well positioned for that future market.
Defining “regional” flight
I think that’s still a fluid part of the equation. That’ll depend on our customer needs and preferences. It’s not something that I want to pin down with the particulars today.
Fixed-cost versus cost-plus contracts
We think it’s important that the contractual type and structure matches the risk profile of the program. There are some development programs where a fixed-price structure makes sense where you might be using existing technology and the development requirements are very clear. When you look at the ongoing tanker program, the new [KC-46A Pegasus] tanker, that’s a fixed-price development program. While that’s been challenging, that has made good sense in contract structure. Other programs where the requirements might still be more fluid, next-generation space programs that still require a fair amount of R&D, those might make more sense to have a cost-plus kind of structure.
Upper airspace competition
We’re doing a number of things on high-altitude long-endurance vehicles. I think you’re familiar with the previous flight testing we’ve done on the Phantom Eye, which was a high-altitude — 60,000- to 70,000-foot altitude — hydrogen-powered aircraft. Aurora’s portfolio also has the Orion high-altitude long-endurance aircraft, which is now part of our Boeing portfolio.
Next-generation, autonomous jet after F-35
Military autonomous vehicles is one of our core investment areas. That spans a range of aircraft from fighter aircraft to unmanned helicopters to spacecraft and pretty much every segment of our portfolio. I think you’re going to see a combination of piloted and nonpiloted vehicles in the future. Autonomous vehicle advances with our defense customers have allowed us to reduce risk and begin to build some of the fabric required for eventual commercial application. Just another example of that is right now we’re competing for the MQ-25 Stingray, which is the Navy’s latest competition to put an unmanned drone aircraft onboard the aircraft carriers that could provide tanking capability. We’re also working on an unmanned underwater autonomous vehicle that went into sea trials about three months ago.
Mass produce or own eVTOL tech?
I think it could be a combination. We want to have a strong and vibrant supply chain and having the right balance for that for the future. We have a number of autonomous air vehicles that are either in production or in design. As we contemplate future product lines, it will be a combination of internal Boeing design and production capabilities. The opportunity for urban mobility solutions, both passenger and cargo solutions, is increasing. The drone that we rolled out [in January] is part of the prototyping we’re doing to begin innovating in that marketplace.
Human space exploration
One of the big things we’re working on right now that certainly has my attention is the first rocket to Mars and the new Space Launch System. I think that’s something that’s capturing the attention of the future generation of talent. I think it’s something that will create a great economic and technology ripple benefit, and I believe the first person that steps foot on Mars will get there on a Boeing rocket.