This is Boeing’s first cargo drone prototype–a Godzilla of an octocopter that is the largest ever made. It’s an indication that the world’s biggest aerospace company believes that autonomous civilian drones are the future of commercial shipping.
Boeing’s vision for cargo drones has little in common with the current plans of consumer-oriented companies like Amazon, DHL, or even Domino’s Pizza. Those companies are focusing on “last mile” delivery–carrying small packages or groceries to the customer at home. For instance, DHL has been experimenting with drone deliveries since 2014 and Amazon made its first Prime drone delivery in March 2017. Boeing’s prototype is not designed for at-home delivery at all, the company says. Instead, it seems to be for the step before delivery: shipping.
At 747 pounds, Boeing’s prototype is a monster. It’s 15 feet long and 18 feet wide, equipped with custom batteries that power eight counter-rotating engines with six-foot-long blades that let it fly at a few hundred feet of altitude at a theoretical top speed of 70 miles per hour. This flying beast is capable of ferrying up to 500 pounds of cargo. To give you a familiar data point, the largest consumer drone available today–the DJI Agras MG-1–can only transport 22 pounds.
Boeing’s prototype flies entirely on its own thanks to technology from Aurora Flight Sciences, the autonomous flight development company that Boeing bought last October. In fact, it was a small team of 50 people from Aurora and Boeing who built the prototype in a record three months. Aurora had a head start, since it was already building a prototype for a fully autonomous drone for the US Air Force and Darpa called Lightningstrike. But that concept was completely different from Boeing’s octocopter, using an architecture similar to the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, an aircraft that can take off and land vertically like a helicopter but cruise like an airplane.
Until now, Boeing was putting all its drone tokens in the military jackpot machine. Most of these drones were scaled-down airplanes or full helicopters retrofitted with remote controls. Now, the $94-billion Chicago company seems to be acknowledging that the future of transportation represents a larger opportunity than it previously anticipated, one that will surpass military use over time. That’s why it designed this vehicle, which employs the usual multiple rotor architecture of smaller consumer drones and Amazon’s delivery prototypes–rather than the typical airplane design of military drones. In a press release, Boeing Chief Technology Officer Greg Hyslop said that the prototype is a major step for Boeing “to really change air travel and transport.”
For transport, Boeing imagines that these large-scale drones would serve as flying “trucks,” quickly and inexpensively moving large cargo from distribution warehouses to, for example, shops in a town. They can also serve to move equipment to remote industrial facilities, like oil rigs, all without pilots. When it comes to passenger travel, we’ve already seen what companies like Uber and Bell Helicopter or Airbus want to do with their electric autonomous air vehicles. Whether or not it develops its prototype in that direction, Boeing’s octocopter is a testing platform that seeks to lay the groundwork for new modes of transit.
It may not be like the last-mile swarms that Bezos imagined or a Back to the Future-style highways-in-the-sky scenario, but it’s no longer crazy to imagine a sky filled with these machines taking people from city centers to airports or goods from warehouses to shopping areas.