A Visit to Boston’s Own Robot-Plane Skunk Works
Unbeknownst to the lunch crowds who fill the streets around the Cambridge Marriott every weekday, Kendall Square has its very own Area 51: a mini-aircraft hangar on the fourteenth floor of One Broadway. Part of the newly opened R&D outpost of Manassas, VA-based Aurora Flight Sciences, the space is used to test unpiloted machines such as a UFO-shaped surveillance craft that can take off and land vertically, a fold-up airplane designed to fly over the plains of Mars, and a makeshift glider that uses bat-like echolocation to avoid obstacles. Aurora engineers fly the smallest models around the indoor mini-hangar and truck larger prototypes out to nearby airfields such as Hanscom Air Force Base.
I toured the facility last Thursday courtesy of an old high school friend, Tim Dawson-Townsend, who located me recently after seeing my stories in Xconomy. Tim was at MIT when I was at Harvard, then joined the Air Force. Now he’s a program manager at Aurora, where he works on a range of defense-related projects that run from the Excalibur, a vertical-takeoff attack plane that doesn’t care whether it flies right-side-up or upside-down, to the UFO-like GoldenEye (okay, it’s really shaped more like a backyard barbeque or Oscar the Grouch’s trash can from Sesame Street than a UFO).
Dawson-Townsend says Aurora is a great place to work because, while it has a profitable business building aerostructures such as the carbon-composite fuselage for Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the company also has a strong R&D sensibility, having started out building high-altitude scientific craft for NASA. “Everybody and his brother is building a UAV these days,” Dawson-Townsend says. But few companies, in his view, bring Aurora’s sense of experiment and adventure to the industry.
Aurora CEO John Langford founded the company in 1989 after several years managing MIT’s Daedalus human-powered airplane project. “John realized that if you put engines on these things, we could do some interesting science,” says Thomas Vaneck, Aurora’s vice president of research and development and the leader of the Cambridge lab. The company worked with NASA throughout the 1990s on the Perseus series of research UAVs, which set world altitude records. But as NASA’s research interests changed, and especially as the conflict in Iraq got underway, Aurora’s focus shifted to defense, Vaneck told me. The company acquired a former Northrop Grumman facility in Bridgeport, WV, for manufacturing metal airplane parts, built an adjacent facility for making carbon-composite parts, and won big contracts developing components for the unmanned Global Hawk as well as the E2-C Hawkeye early-warning aircraft and the EA-6B Prowler electronic-warfare plane.
UAVs such as General Atomics’ famous MQ-1 Predator have performed so well in surveillance, targeting, and attack roles in Iraq that the military services want manufacturers to explore more ways such craft can assist units in the field, Vaneck says. “Our customers are demanding that these technologies do a lot more,” he says. And that’s what led the company to set up an R&D center in Cambridge, where engineers can easily collaborate with members of MIT’s world-renowned Aero/Astro department. For example, Aurora is working with MIT’s Jonathan How to explore software algorithms for planning and coordinating the action of fleets of UAVs in real time. (Xconomy last spoke with How about MIT’s entry in the DARPA Urban Challenge robot car competition, which also benefits from his work on planning algorithms.) “Through osmosis, we’ll be able to extract interesting technologies and put them into the company’s products,” says Vaneck.
One fascinating product is the GoldenEye, which is essentially a flying ducted fan that generates enough lift to carry a small payload such as an optical/infrared camera and a laser designator (used to “light up” targets that can then be destroyed by missiles). On the ground, the GoldenEye perches on four legs. When powered up, it leaps from the ground like a helicopter, then tilts forward and flies with the help of two stubby wings. (Click here to see a video of the GoldenEye in flight.)
The craft operates completely autonomously, with operators specifying only where it should go. It’s small enough that soldiers could fit two on the back of an SUV. “If you’re a company commander, you don’t have actual control over a Predator” or other existing military UAV, Dawson-Townsend explains. The Air Force controls all craft that fly over 3,000 feet—in fact, Predators in Iraq are usually controlled via satellite by pilots based in Las Vegas, NV, of all places. The GoldenEye, by contrast, would fly low, under the control of soldiers who might need it to peek over a hill or locate snipers.
The conflict in Iraq makes money for brand-new UAV systems scarce, but Vaneck says that Aurora has been invited to show off the GoldenEye at a military technology demonstration scheduled for the spring. There, it hopes to win a contract that would allow it to complete development and testing of the device, build more demonstration units, and eventually go into production. “We think we can save lives by having this sort of asset in the conflict,” says Vaneck.
A scaled-down, Kevlar-skinned version of the GoldenEye is one of several craft currently inhabiting Aurora’s 14th-floor mini-hangar. Dawson-Townsend also showed me a scale model of the Mars Flyer, which is designed to unfold from a rocket’s nose cone as it parachutes into the Martian atmosphere. NASA has put plans for an airborne Mars mission on hold—but if the mission is ever revived, Aurora’s plane might be the one cruising over Olympus Mons or the Valles Marineris.