Air Travel Reality Bites Boeing’s Future Aerial Mobility Plans

Credit: Aerion

In 2018, seeing the crop of potentially disruptive startups pursuing new forms of aerial mobility, Boeing formed NeXt. But now, its revenues crippled by the double blows of the 737 MAX grounding and COVID-19 pandemic, the aerospace giant is moving to shutter NeXt as swiftly as it can. 

The small, agile business unit was created to bring together Boeing’s interests in advanced air transportation, ranging from cargo drones and air taxis to supersonic and hypersonic airliners. Its closure could have ramifications disproportionate to the unit’s small size—around 100 people, according to the Seattle Times.

Through NeXt, Boeing made significant investments in autonomous air taxi joint venture Wisk, supersonic business jet developer Aerion and SkyGrid, another joint company developing an airspace management system for unmanned aircraft and urban air mobility.

Aurora Flight Sciences, acquired at substantial cost by Boeing in 2017, also reports to NeXt, although it works across the company’s commercial and defense portfolios. “Aurora will remain a subsidiary and will continue to be part of NeXt for the remainder of the year,” Boeing spokesperson Alison Sheridan says. 

“Management will assess several options regarding where this talented organization can make a meaningful and productive impact. In the meantime, it continues to run its business as usual,” she says.

“Our continued investment in and participation with our joint venture and investment companies—Wisk, SkyGrid and Aerion—are being evaluated and no decisions have been made yet,” Sheridan adds.

This is not Boeing’s first retreat from a new market since the MAX was grounded in March 2019. In January, the company withdrew from DARPA’s XS-1 program to develop the Phantom Express suborbital spaceplane to redirect its investment to other Boeing programs.

NeXt was spun out of Boeing’s HorizonX innovation unit, which also manages the company’s corporate venture capital investments in several startups including SkyGrid partner SparkCognition.

“[There is] no impact to HorizonX based on this change. It is a separate entity with separate leadership,” Sheridan says.

At Airbus, the commercial downturn has yet to impact its U.S. innovation unit A-cubed.

“Despite the terrible crisis, we are pleased to be able to see A-cubed into the future in 2021. We will hunker down as the rest of Airbus will need to do and focus on our core projects,” spokesperson Paige Wilson says.

While it appears NeXt’s internal projects are being halted, anything Boeing is committed to externally seems to still be supported for now, or handled out of more traditional groups. Boeing’s own Cargo Air Vehicle and Passenger Air Vehicle electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) projects are likely casualties.

Confirming work within NeXt “is being paused at this time,” Sheridan says. “Boeing remains committed to its efforts around future mobility and innovation and will continue to invest in these areas in other parts of the company.”

Formed in 2019 by Boeing and eVTOL startup Kitty Hawk, “Wisk is a healthy, independent company with a committed vision, mission, and go-to-market plan,” the joint venture says. “We are in a strong financial position with an exceptional team and we continue to execute on our current road map.”

Kitty Hawk is backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, and Wisk is working to begin a trial air taxi service in New Zealand this year with its autonomous two-seat Cora eVTOL. “As an investor, Boeing’s relationship with Wisk has not changed,” the joint venture says.

Also in 2019, Boeing made a significant investment in Aerion, which is developing the AS2 supersonic business jet. Describing Boeing as a “valued partner and major shareholder” with two positions on its board of directors, Aerion says the OEM “remains committed to the success” of the company.

“SkyGrid will continue to be a joint venture between Boeing and SparkCognition,” the joint company says, noting the companies share a commitment to safely enabling autonomous aviation “With a strong balance sheet and long runaway ahead of us, there is no impact to SkyGrid’s strategic plans or financial viability,” SkyGrid says.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.