Boeing's cargo drone brain could power autonomous air-taxis

Amazon's Prime Air drones will have to share the skies, with Boeing revealing its play on the cargo-carrying UAV segment. The Boeing "cargo aerial vehicle" – or CAV – is the handiwork of three months design and construction, the aerospace company claims, potentially capable of carrying up to 500 pounds of packages and more.

Of course, it's not Boeing's first attempt at this sort of aircraft. The company already has years of working on UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) as part of its ongoing electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) research. They range in size considerably, and have been earmarked for everything from passenger transportation to military use.

This current CAV is 4 feet tall, and 15 by 18 feet across. It tips the scales at more than 700 pounds, and has eight counter-rotating propellers paired wth custom, Boeing-designed batteries. Currently, it's remotely controlled by a human operator, but the company has plans there, too.

The goal, it says, is to test and further develop Boeing's autonomy technology, which could be applied to a wide variety of aerospace purposes. Test flights were completed recently at Boeing Research & Technology's Collaborative Autonomous Systems Laboratory in Missouri, with several divisions within the firm eager to work on the results.

On the one hand, there's the potential for cargo transportation as the name suggests. Boeing believes it could be used for time-sensitive and high-value goods not entrusted to traditional routes, in addition to conducting autonomous delivery missions to remote or dangerous environments. However the same self-piloting software could be scaled up to flesh & blood cargo.

Boeing acquired Aurora Flight Sciences in late 2017, a company working on developing an eVTOL passenger air vehicle. There's now the possibility that an offshoot of the systems eventually used to navigate this cargo drone could also be applied to an air-taxi. Such a craft could take off and land vertically like a helicopter, rather than demanding a runway, but be used by people with no flight experience.

That would, undoubtedly, bring Boeing directly up against regulatory concerns, something the company says it's uniquely positioned to tackle. "The safe integration of unmanned aerial systems is vital to unlocking their full potential," Steve Nordlund, Boeing HorizonX vice president, said of the CAV prototype. "Boeing has an unmatched track record, regulatory know-how and systematic approach to deliver solutions that will shape the future of autonomous flight."

Commercial use of delivery drones has met some significant challenges along the way, usually framed in terms of safety. Limitations like pilots maintaining visual contact with a drone in flight have led to frustration from companies developing the technology, and push-back against the FAA among other agencies. In October 2017, the Trump administration announced a UAS Integration Pilot Program, pressing the FAA to explore new and broader uses of drones and unmanned aircraft.