A look at Boeing’s self-driving aircraft plans
As one of the world’s leading manufacturers of commercial passenger and cargo aircraft, it’s easy to forget that Boeing has a big presence in the military as well. In fact, this is where some of his most exciting research takes place. Specifically, it is currently developing two autonomous combat aircraft.
One such military design that Boeing has been working on in recent years is its MQ-25 “Stingray”, which will be used for aerial refueling. The 15.5 meter long device, whose main user will be the US Navy, made its first flight in September 2019. With 7,250 kg of fuel on board, it has a range of 500 NM (930 km) .
Boeing plans for the MQ-25 to be deployed from aircraft carriers on its resupply missions, which presented it with an interesting problem in terms of dimensions. This has resulted in the development of a folding wing system, similar to the technology seen on the 777X’s wingtips, which reduces its wingspan from 22.9 to just 9.5 meters. Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s chief engineer, explained in a presentation this month that:
“Aircraft carriers have space constraints below decks. So with the wings folded, can we move the aircraft autonomously and do it in a way that is safe for people handling the aircraft as well as for everything around them? this test with flying colors.”
The MQ-25’s folding wings allow it to be compactly stowed on very compact aircraft carriers. Photo: Boeing
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MQ-28 ‘Ghost Bat’
Hyslop also noted that test flights involving the MQ-25 are currently taking place in St Louis. A little further, Boeing is involved in the development of another autonomous aircraft. Known as MQ-28 “Ghost Bat”, the project has also been referred to as Boeing Airpower Teaming System and Loyal Wingman.
Tests involving this multirole combat aircraft with stealth technology have taken place in Australia. This is due to the Royal Australian Air Force being touted as the primary user of the type. The MQ-28 is a highly technological design, with artificial intelligence playing a key role in allowing it to independently perform autonomous missions. Reviewing the design process, Hyslop adds:
“[Looking at] how they built it, they used modern composite material systems, and they can use virtual reality to simulate factory construction. The build was done at our Melbourne factory, and now it’s in flight testing.”
The MQ-28 made its first flight in February 2021. Photo: Boeing
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The MQ-28 will operate alongside manned aircraft
What’s particularly interesting about the MQ-28 “Ghost Bat” is Boeing’s intention to fly missions alongside manned aircraft. In this regard, it will function as a force multiplier, although this presents its own challenges. Hyslop notes:
“What the Australian Air Force is interested in is how to have an unmanned aircraft paired with a manned aircraft, and try to extend the power and extend the range of that manned aircraft.”
With this intention, it is clear that, far from replacing crewed operations for good, autonomous aircraft will rather increase the capacity of existing missions. Commercially, it will certainly be interesting to see whether Boeing’s autonomous flight research will ever find its way into the passenger and cargo sectors.