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Boeing bets on robot pilots, self-flying taxis with acquisition

(Bloomberg) -- Boeing Co. is buying longtime partner Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., gaining a portfolio of futuristic technology such as unmanned air taxis that may someday navigate city skies for Uber Technologies Inc.

The acquisition gives Boeing enhanced expertise in robotic co-pilots, drone cargo aircraft and other products designed to reshape the aerospace industry. The deal also underscores Boeing’s focus on smaller transactions while competitors such as Northrop Grumman Corp. and suppliers like United Technologies Corp. are pursuing large-scale mergers.

Boeing said the purchase of Manassas, Virginia-based Aurora, which has 550 employees, wouldn’t affect its financial guidance. Terms weren’t disclosed in a statement by the companies Thursday.

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A Boeing logo sits on the Boeing Co. company's chalet prior to the opening of the Farnborough International Airshow in Farnborough, U.K., on Sunday, July 13, 2014. The Farnborough International Air Show, which runs July 14-20, is this year's biggest forum for aircraft introductions and sales. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Aurora has designed, produced and flown more than 30 unmanned air vehicles since the company was founded in 1989. Its aircraft use autonomous technology including perception, machine learning and advanced flight-control systems. There’s the Centaur, an “optionally piloted aircraft,” and a robotic co-pilot that has flown a Boeing 737 flight simulator.

Air TaxiIn April, the company successfully flew an air-taxi prototype that takes off and lands vertically, handy for rooftop arrivals and departures. Aurora aims to deliver 50 of the aircraft by 2020 for testing by Uber Elevate, the ride-sharing company’s initiative for flying cars. Uber, which also counts Textron Inc. and Embraer SA as partners, envisions urban customers zipping over traffic snarls with aircraft summoned by computer or mobile phone.

Aurora’s expertise in self-flying aircraft will also benefit Boeing, which has stepped up its research in that area as a pilot shortage threatens to crimp airline growth. The Chicago-based planemaker is studying artificial intelligence that would allow a single pilot to be at the controls during a long cruise, a potential step toward fully autonomous flights.

Aurora is a leader in electric propulsion for aircraft, another area of interest for Boeing as automakers spur rapid advancements in battery technology. Boeing’s venture capital arm has also invested in Zunum Aero, a Kirkland, Washington-based company developing hybrid-electric aircraft.

Aurora, with Honeywell International Inc. and Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, is developing a hybrid-electric plane for the U.S. Defense Department. The aircraft is powered by 24 ducted fans that tilt, enabling it to take-off vertically like a helicopter, or to hover or cruise.

Once the acquisition closes, Aurora will become a subsidiary under Boeing Engineering, Test & Technology known as Aurora Flight Sciences, A Boeing Company. It will keep an “independent operating model,” Boeing said.