TOP 100: Inside Boeing's strategy to be a leader of autonomous systems

For Boeing, unmanned systems are about more than the vehicle. Here is their story about how they've embraced a broader concept of autonomous systems and created a standalone autonomous unit as part of a revamp of its defense business.

Boeing is on a mission to have the same profile in the unmanned arena as that of its flagship manned military and commercial airplane businesses.

But the world’s largest airplane maker alongside long-standing rival Airbus wants to broaden the conversation around unmanned technologies beyond traditional use of the word “unmanned.” That push is evident in Boeing’s move over the summer to restructure its defense, space and security segment.

Out of that reorganization came four smaller units with one of them being an autonomous systems organization that includes a large portion of the company’s unmanned platforms. Autonomy could be engine of growth in Boeing’s efforts to be agile and responsive to market and technology changes, as Boeing defense CEO Leanne Caret told a Defense One event June 14.

Boeing comes in at number 4 on the 2017 Washington Technology Top 100 rankings on $5.1 billion in unclassified prime contracts for fiscal year 2016. The company dropped one spot from last year’s rankings but registered an almost 2-percent increase from the prior year in prime federal contracting dollars.

“From our perspective, this was not only a defense move but something more broadly we see in the company as autonomy will continue entering our lives,” Boeing executive Chris Raymond told Washington Technology. Raymond leads the autonomous systems business unit as vice president and general manager within the defense segment.

Raymond described Boeing’s autonomous systems portfolio as including airborne and maritime platforms, remote sensing products and other electronic systems. The concept of autonomy goes beyond just the platform itself, Raymond said, not unlike the broader use of autonomous versus unmanned.

“In other cases there are considerable investments in software and the enabling technologies for the safe introduction of autonomous systems,” Raymond told WT.

Autonomous technology is one of six priority markets Caret has identified as priority markets for Boeing’s $29 billion defense segment as it seeks to diversify revenue beyond fighter jets and turn around three straight years of revenue declines. Caret told the Defense One event Boeing’s longstanding fighter business remains a “key part” of the company’s portfolio but “not our only business.”

“We’re working as an integrated team across the corporation,” Raymond said to WT in reference to Boeing’s defense and commercial businesses.

The company’s research-and-technology organization and HorizonX venture capital organization also work with Raymond’s team, he told WT. Boeing disclosed in early August HorizonX’s investment in Pittsburgh-based C360 Technologies to help bring the latter’s video technology into the aerospace arena for potential future use in autonomous systems.

One of the new businesses Boeing has further extended itself into during recent times is the unmanned underwater vehicle arena. Late last year, Boeing acquired California-based Liquid Robotics nearly two years after the start of a partnership between both companies to further hone the latter’s Wave Glider vehicle.

Boeing was not the only defense contractor to make an acquisition of an underwater drone maker within the past two years.  General Dynamics made the first move in February 2016 with its purchase of Bluefin Robotics and Boeing followed nine months later with the deal for Liquid Robotics.

Then in May of this year, L3 Technologies initiated a double-dose of undersea-related acquisitions through an initial deal to buy vehicle maker OceanServer. Navy officials have signaled interest in $3 billion of spending in unmanned underwater technology, per the Washington Post, with interest in uses sea mine detection and meteorological testing.

Boeing’s interest in autonomy in the waters stretches back almost five decades and focuses today’s efforts largely on what Raymond called the “seabed to space” capability. Through that, Raymond said Boeing seeks to combine communication links that travel from the sea to airborne platforms that include unmanned aircraft.

Another key cog in Boeing’s autonomous business machine is Echo Voyager, a 55-foot unmanned submarine the company built to be fully autonomous without requiring a support vessel for launch or recovery. Echo Voyager is not intended as a replacement for manned submarines but as a complimentary piece for certain missions, Raymond said.

“The vision was initiated around the idea of more efficient operations in dull-and-dirty missions that wouldn’t be done by a manned vehicle in the future,” Raymond said. “In most cases, those things were always dependent on a host ship that took them out, delivered them and recovered them.

“One of the things we saw was that eventually you would want a host ship-independent kind of platform. Some of these security operations may have mission needs where that platform with a flexible payload bay could be a good solution.”

Later this year, Boeing will face an immediate test of its autonomous strategy when the Navy is anticipated to award a contract for the branch’s Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle program also known as “Orca.” Deltek data indicates an award to come in September for the contract that seeks an underwater drone that can travel to a location, loiter, deploy payloads and return to its home base.

Boeing signaled strong interest in the XLUUV contract in June when the company announced an underwater drone manufacturing partnership with Huntington Ingalls Industries, the U.S.’ largest military shipbuilder and sole builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Boeing and Huntington Ingalls are the only companies that have publicly stated interest in the XLUUV contract.

The Boeing-HII collaboration centers on Echo Voyager, which Raymond confirmed to WT that the company will propose for the contract. Raymond said Boeing and Huntington Ingalls have had discussions with each other on potential opportunities over the years.

“(HII) brought a lot of production expertise and a lot of deep domain knowledge. We thought the partnership made a lot of sense as we compete and bring to market Echo Voyager,” Raymond said.

Increasing adoption rates and usage of autonomous technologies will depend on the safe integration of the platforms into the domain and air space in particular, Raymond said. Unmanned aircraft integration goes beyond a simple drone purchase but also involves registration of the platform and working through both the regulatory and technological sides of the issue, Raymond said.

Industry’s role “is to collaborate with the (Federal Aviation Administration) on how to continue to advance and mature certification not just of autonomous vehicles but also the ground and flight operations,” Raymond said.