Aurora working on pilot-less 'air version of Uber', other initiatives

August 22, 2018 10:29:57 AM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


Imagine if the Golden Triangle merged with New York City and suddenly had access to all of the talents and resources of The Big Apple. 


That, said Aurora Flight Sciences Vice President Greg Stewart, is the primary benefit of his company's sale to Boeing in November. 


"We weren't a small company before the sale," Stewart told the audience at the Columbus Rotary Club Tuesday at Lion Hills Center. "We had about 500 employees. But Boeing is huge, about 77,000 employees. One of the biggest things about that is suddenly we have access to the resources of a company that size. It's been less than a year since the sale, and we're already seeing the benefits of that." 


Stewart said Aurora Flight Science, which specializes in the design, testing and production of autonomous (unmanned) aircraft systems, is set to move into new areas thanks to its relationship with Boeing, the world's largest aircraft manufacturer. 


"There were areas before the sale where we were competitors and, a lot of times, Boeing had the advantage because of their superior resources," Stewart said. "Now that we are partners, we're seeing new opportunities." 


Stewart said those opportunities include the next phase of its pioneering Orion aircraft, a medium-altitude, long-range unmanned aircraft, as well as unmanned helicopters and high-altitude aircrafts. 


The company is also working on the air version of Uber or Lyft, the company's first foray into passenger air service. 


"Imagine that you need to get to the (Gulf) Coast all the sudden," Stewart said. "What we are working on is a system like Uber. You order a flight, go out to the airport, get on the plane and you're on the coast in an hour. You're the only person in the plane." 


Stewart said those new opportunities have meant additional employees for Aurora. The company has added 150 employees since the sale, including a half-dozen new positions in Columbus. 


Headquartered in Mananas, Virginia, Aurora -- which has retained its status as an autonomous company after the sale -- has two production plants (Columbus and Bridgeport, Connecticut) and research/development facilities in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Dayton, Ohio; and Mountain View, California; as well as a European office in Luzen, Switzerland. 


The company arrived in Mississippi in 2003, operating out of the Mississippi State University's Raspet Flight Sciences Laboratory in Starkville. It opened the first of what would be three buildings at the Lowndes County Industrial Park in 2005. Two new buildings (2008) and (2013) expanded the facility to roughly 19,000 square feet.  


Today the company employs more than 100 people locally. 


"When I was a consultant, I used to say that a company's operations were a reflection of its size," said Stewart, who has been in Columbus for 12 years. "A small to medium company is run based on the personality of its owner. A big company is run by its structure. Boeing is a big, big company with lots and lots of structure. 


"That's taken some time for us to adapt to, but on the other side, the opportunities it has presented have been more than we could have dreamed of. It's been a great move for both companies," he added.

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]