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Passenger air vehicle
Boeing’s passenger air vehicle takes flight at a testing ground in Manassas, Va. (Boeing Photo)

Boeing says it has successfully completed the first test flight of a prototype for its autonomous passenger air vehicle, which could start carrying riders as early as next year.

The test was executed on Tuesday at an airport in Manassas, Va., near the headquarters of Aurora Flight Sciences, the Boeing subsidiary that’s been developing the electric-powered, vertical takeoff-and-landing aircraft, also known as an eVTOL craft. Boeing NeXt, the business unit that leads Boeing’s urban air mobility efforts, is in charge of the test program.

Tuesday’s uncrewed flight lasted less than a minute and involved a controlled takeoff, hover and landing. The maneuvers were designed to test the prototype’s autonomous functions and ground control systems. A test dummy was strapped inside the cockpit for the ride.

Boeing said future flights will test forward, wing-borne flight, as well as the transition phase between vertical flight and forward flight. That transition is considered the most challenging mode for high-speed eVTOL aircraft.

“In one year, we have progressed from a conceptual design to a flying prototype,” Boeing’s chief technology officer, Greg Hyslop, said today in a news release. “Boeing’s expertise and innovation have been critical in developing aviation as the world’s safest and most efficient form of transportation, and we will continue to lead with a safe, innovative and responsible approach to new mobility solutions.”

The passenger air vehicle, or PAV, builds on Aurora’s past efforts in the eVTOL field. The craft is 30 feet long and 28 feet wide, with eight rotors for vertical lift and a tail rotor to facilitate forward flight. It’s designed to fly in full autonomous mode with a maximum range of 50 miles.

“This is what revolution looks like, and it’s because of autonomy,” said John Langford, president and CEO of Aurora Flight Sciences. “Certifiable autonomy is going to make quiet, clean and safe urban air mobility possible.”

There’s been increasing interest in autonomous, personal eVTOL aircraft, more popularly known as air taxis or flying cars.

Aurora is one of the partners in the Uber Elevate air taxi development program, which is planning demonstration flights in Dallas, Dubai and Los Angeles in 2020. Uber’s other partners include Pipistrel Aircraft, Karem, Bell and Embraer (which recently agreed to be part of a Boeing-led joint venture for commercial airplanes).

Boeing says it’s exploring the possibilities for both two- and four-passenger vehicles. and evaluating a variety of commercial opportunities. “At this time, it would be premature for us to comment further, except to say that we are pursuing some interesting and exciting opportunities,” Boeing spokeswoman Megan Hilfer told GeekWire in an email.

The PAV isn’t the only project in Boeing NeXt’s portfolio: Boeing is also developing an uncrewed, all-electric cargo air vehicle, or CAV, which is designed to transport up to 500 pounds within a radius of up to 20 miles. One prototype was put through a test flight last year at a Boeing lab in Missouri. A redesigned prototype went through indoor flight tests last month, with outdoor flights expected to follow later this year.

Boeing NeXt is working on other pieces of the air mobility puzzle as well. In November, Boeing and a Texas-based AI startup, SparkCognition, formed a joint venture called SkyGrid with the aim of developing a next-generation air traffic management platform that would integrate autonomous air vehicles into the global airspace.

“Boeing was there when the aviation industry was born, and in our second century, we will unlock the potential of the urban air mobility market,” said Steve Nordlund, vice president and general manager of Boeing NeXt. “From building air vehicles to airspace integration, we will usher in a future of safe, low-stress mobility in cities and regions around the world.”

2020 will be a key year for urban air mobility, and not just because of Uber Elevate’s plans. NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration have teamed up to mount the first in what’s expected to be a series of Urban Air Mobility Grand Challenges next year, with the goal of determining the best practices and technologies for the transportation revolution ahead.

At last October’s GeekWire Summit, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said autonomous air vehicles could go into commercial operation within five years.

“This is a transformation that is going to happen faster than many of us might have thought a couple years ago,” Muilenburg said, “and we are on the leading edge.”

Update for 1 p.m. PT Jan. 23: Executives at Boeing and Uber had more to say about the implications of this week’s test flight. Muilenburg referred to the project during remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:

“The future of mobility — moving goods, moving cargo, moving people — that future is happening now, and it’s going to accelerate over the next five years and ramp up even more beyond that.

“Think of urban areas going to three dimensions. Electrically powered autonomous vehicles equipped with artificial intelligence, smart routing — that technology is being demonstrated right now. The passenger air vehicle is an exciting forefront for us — think about urban flying taxis. Traffic in dense urban areas is going to quickly to go from two dimensions to three dimensions, and once you free up that third dimension, the amount of efficiency you free up is extraordinary. Today, 25 percent of world’s commute times are greater than 90 minutes. Think about the time savings that are available when you go to three dimensions.”

Meanwhile, Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate, released this statement:

“Aurora is now officially first in flight for Uber. This successful flight test is a tremendous step forward, taking aerial ridesharing from a vision to the skies in less than two years since Uber Elevate was first formed and we announced our partnership with Aurora. Today’s test is an important first milestone and we look forward to more progress on the path to making our uberAIR product a reality.”

Uber’s aircraft partners are building eVTOLs to operate on Uber’s aerial ridesharing network, with Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles targeted as the first U.S. cities for Uber Air. In addition to planning the demonstration flights in 2020, Uber is working with those cities as well as the wider aviation community to make it possible for partners like Aurora to deploy air taxis commercially on Uber Air by 2023.

That would be right in line with Muilenburg’s five-year forecast.

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