Most experts agree that true autonomous flight is still years away, but that is not keeping major aircraft makers from jumping on the drone bandwagon.he basic technology has been around for years, developed in both manned and unmanned contexts. Many of the new concept aircraft designs are coming from drone makers scaling up, while the more traditional end of the industry is also looking to either scale down, or adapt manned designs for unmanned use.
The list of traditional aircraft makers developing unmanned or ‘pilot optional’ versions of their designs has grown to the point where it is hard to find a company that’s not pursuing this path.
Lockheed Martin, which purchased Sikorsky in 2015, has been testing and demonstrating unmanned versions of manned helicopters since 2010, and showed off mature versions that are now in military service overseas at a 2016 conference focused on unmanned aircraft integration and traffic management.
Aurora Flight Sciences, which has been integrating remote controls into traditional manned aircraft like the Diamond DA42 for several years, became a Boeing subsidiary in November. Boeing engineers unveiled their new heavy lift cargo drone design Jan. 10, a strictly utilitarian design able to lift 500 pounds. The Aurora acquisition also contributes to positioning Boeing to be among the major players vying for a slice of a brand-new aviation market: personal, on-demand air transportation.
Ridesharing giant Uber has forged partnerships with or stimulated efforts by Bell, Boeing (via Aurora), Pipistrel, Embraer, Airbus, and others, hoping to create a distributed network of small aircraft that can whisk people across cities, landing on rooftops and small fields. Adapting manned aircraft for unmanned operation will also likely impact other missions, such as aerial application. Continue reading about the Bell Air Taxi.