For more than 100 years, Boeing has paved the way for modern aviation as the largest commercial aircraft supplier. Boeing is also the 3rd largest defense contractor in the world, equipping militaries with the aviation needs to meet modern security demands. These include a wide range of planes, helicopters, missile launchers, and autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones.
As Boeing states, “Autonomy has the potential to revolutionize the way humans connect, protect, explore and inspire. But autonomy is about more than just the latest unmanned product. It’s about purposeful innovation in areas like persistence and intelligence. The true value of autonomy lies in its ability to help customers stay on mission longer, cover more area and provide more immediate, actionable knowledge – prioritizing manpower for the most important actions and decisions.” One example of Boeing’s autonomous drone systems is the MQ-25, which made its maiden flight on September 19, 2019.
The MQ-25 is a drone that is used to refuel jets in flight. Boeing developed it in collaboration with the US Navy. The drone is 51ft long with a 75ft fully extended wingspan. When not in use, the wings fold to a span of 31.3ft, making it an ideal vessel to be placed on a naval ship with limited available space. It has a range of 500 nautical miles with a fuel payload of 16,000lbs and is powered by a Rolls Royces AE 3007N turbofan engine. After the MQ-25’s initial test flight, it succeeded in refueling a Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet jet on June 4, 2021. The MQ-25 drone is positioned to allow naval operations to carry out longer and more efficient aerial missions.
Around the same time Boeing and the Navy began collaborating on the MQ-25, they developed another autonomous platform, this one a submersible drone. Committing a total investment of $274.4million, the Navy tasked Boeing with developing an extra-large unmanned undersea vehicle (XLUUV) that could maintain a mission for several months at a time. In early 2016, Boeing began testing their XLUUV called Echo Voyager. The Echo is a modular, long endurance, submersible drone. It has a total length of 51ft with a 34ft long, 2,000cubic ft volume payload capacity. And, as explained by Boeing, Echo is “Powered by a hybrid combination of battery technology and marine diesel generators, Echo Voyager is truly a game-changing platform, capable of performing as a multi-mission system and playing a pivotal role in future force structure.”
In 2019, Boeing and the Navy entered another deal to build the Orca, an XLUUV based on the design of the Echo Voyager. The Orca drone will be larger with a total length of 85ft. The drone will also be able to carry out longer missions with a wider and deeper navigational range. These changes will allow the submersible Orca drone to provide the Navy with surveillance, minesweeping and placement, and electronic combat on and below the water surface. Boeing is aiming to deliver the Orca for testing by the end of 2022. “Autonomy has the potential to revolutionize the way humans connect, protect, explore and inspire,” Boeing states. “For 100 years, Boeing has led manned and unmanned technology innovation and integration from sea to air to space. Autonomy will define the next 100 years – and Boeing is driving the safe innovation and integration of autonomy to maximize human potential.”