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Near Earth Solutions works on software and sensor technologies for autonomous aircraft ranging in size from drones to helicopters. (Near Earth Solutions Photo)

Boeing’s venture capital arm, Boeing HorizonX, says it has made a substantial investment in Near Earth Autonomy, a Pittsburgh-based startup that focuses on technologies for autonomous flight.

Boeing and Near Earth also announced a partnership to explore future products and applications for emerging markets such as urban mobility.

The move follows up on Boeing’s acquisition of a more established company in the realm of autonomous flight, Aurora Flight Sciences, and underscores the fact that the aerospace giant is turning more attention to robotic flying machines.

Neither Boeing nor Near Earth Autonomy said precisely how much was being invested.

“What I can tell you is that Boeing HorizonX typically makes investments that span the single millions up to the low double-digit millions,” Boeing spokeswoman Megan Hilfer told GeekWire in an email. “The investment in Near Earth Autonomy is at the higher end of that range.”

In a news release, Boeing HorizonX Vice President Steve Nordlund said “this partnership will accelerate technology solutions that we feel will be key to unlocking emerging markets of autonomous flight.”

Near Earth Autonomy, a spinoff from Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, is developing software and sensor technologies that enable autonomous navigation for aircraft ranging in size from octocopter drones to full-size helicopters.

One technology focuses on mapping the environment around the aircraft and plotting a course even in places where GPS doesn’t work, such as tunnels or beneath a thick tree canopy. In 2010, Near Earth’s founders helped the U.S. Army demonstrate the world’s first full-size autonomous helicopter.

“This is an exciting opportunity for Near Earth,” said Sanjiv Singh, the startup’s CEO. “The Boeing HorizonX investment will accelerate the development of robust products and enable access to a broader portfolio of applications for aerial autonomy.”

Singh told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the 50-person company plans to move from its existing headquarters to a larger space, make additional hires and continue work on a line of products for release in the near future.

In August, Near Earth Autonomy struck a deal with Airbus to provide hardware for its Vahana flying car. Airbus is Boeing’s archrival, but Singh told the Tribune-Review that the investment won’t affect the Vahana deal.

Boeing HorizonX says the investment in Near Earth is its first in autonomous flight technologies. The venture investment arm was established in April, and its portfolio includes four other companies:

  • Pennsylvania-based C360, which leverages augmented reality and virtual reality for immersive videos.
  • Virginia-based Upskill, which provides augmented-reality solutions for industrial settings.
  • Kirkland, Wash.,-based Zunum Aero, which is working on a new class of hybrid electric airplanes.
  • Texas-based SparkCognition, which focuses on artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.
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