Seeing beyond the horizon

C360 Technologies’ immersive video

C360 TECHNOLOGIES’ immersive video has been used by professional sports broadcasters and major television networks.

C360 Technologies

By investigating and investing in promising technologies, Boeing looks to disrupt the industry, and itself.

Men outfitted in jetpacks soar above the desert in the United Arab Emirates. In this popular YouTube video, they circle Dubai’s tallest buildings and even fly in formation alongside the wings of a low-altitude jetliner approaching the city, providing matching contrails.

Daring examples like this demonstrate the next wave of aerospace technology advancing across the global landscape. It includes autonomous air vehicles, augmented reality and electric propulsion&msash;a wave of bold ideas pointing to remarkable change.

Peter Kunz, chief technologist for Boeing HorizonX, likens this moment to one 50 years ago, where advancements in software and computer science brought a new world order to technology, spurring business development, investment and ultimately an industrial revolution.

“You’re seeing a penetration and acceptance of technology from a much broader segment of society than you saw in the past,” Kunz said. “There’s an excitement that new things are coming.”

To harness the power of these emerging technologies, Boeing launched HorizonX to invest in startup companies, forge nontraditional partnerships and assess aerospace industry disruption.

“This team strengthens our ability to innovate, compete and win, and change the world,” said Greg Hyslop, Boeing chief technology officer. “Our Boeing HorizonX colleagues augment our own ability to innovate by looking for emerging business models or strategies that can disrupt aerospace, as well as for partners or markets that can open new opportunities for Boeing.”

Formed in April 2017, Boeing HorizonX takes a highly aggressive approach in singling out projects for venture capital investment&msash;in its first 10 months, the group of nearly 40 employees evaluated 1,800 opportunities and invested in eight companies. Boeing has a particular interest in moving forward with autonomous vehicles, additive manufacturing, machine learning and wearable devices, said Steve Nordlund, Boeing HorizonX vice president.

HorizonX operates under the guise of creating technological disruption rather than being disrupted by it. This requires a new way of thinking about innovation, which this new organization has fully embraced, explained Logan Jones, senior director within the group.

“People often miss the disruption because they define things in ways that experience has taught them,” Jones said. “It might be a perfect way to look at the past, but it is not a predictor of the future. We’ve been very broad. We’ve been purposefully nebulous in how we define focus areas. We want to open the aperture.”

HorizonX operates three related missions: Boeing HorizonX Ventures, which identifies startup opportunities and provides investment; New Business Horizons, which builds strategies with nontraditional partners; and Disruptive Horizons, which supplies alternative approaches to traditional business opportunities.

“Part of this group’s purview and vision is to look at all of the supporting elements&msash;aerospace in general,” Kunz said. “We’re one of the few tech industries tied to an end product as opposed to specific technology.”

Digital advances seem to be driving this latest era of innovation, which could transform air travel and space exploration, if not transform the overall quality of life and human interaction. This potential is attracting funders. Since 2000, new investors have put $13 billion into space startups, according to The Tauri Group, an industrial consulting firm. By all signs, other areas of aviation stand to benefit next from forward-thinking financial support.

“We see the big explosion from the investment in space startups,” said Ben Iannotta, editor-in-chief for Aerospace America, the magazine of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. But “when we look at aviation and see all the great challenges&msash;of getting people into less-developed countries, traveling on aircraft, tracking aircraft, improving safety by beaming cockpit audio and video to the ground&msash;are we on the cusp of seeing a similar trend?”

By Dan Raley, Boeing writer

Innovation put to action

industry partners at the India Innovation Challenge launch in Hyderabad, India


Steve Nordlund (third from right), vice president of Boeing HorizonX, speaks with industry partners at the India Innovation Challenge launch in Hyderabad, India.


Here are some examples of how Boeing HorizonX is helping to upend traditional aerospace models:

Expanding autonomy capabilities

As autonomy continues to evolve and becomes mainstream, Boeing is identifying, funding and developing unmanned technologies with the potential to provide aerospace innovation. Examples of Boeing HorizonX Ventures investments include:

  • Near Earth Autonomy, from Pittsburgh, enables aircraft to inspect, map and survey terrain and infrastructure, as well as transport cargo, all autonomously. It currently provides autonomous systems that are operated by Insitu and Aurora Flight Sciences, both Boeing subsidiaries.
  • C360 Technologies, another Pittsburgh startup, specializes in 360-degree, high-density video and distribution. This includes live and on-demand augmented and virtual reality on multiple platforms to support autonomous systems.
  • Texas-based SparkCognition focuses on artificial intelligence and machine learning in the fields of information technology security and industrial operations. It analyzes the impact that artificial intelligence will have on the aviation sector. Possible applications include autonomous vehicle behaviors focused on leveraging AI to assist or automate pilot decisions.

Improving manufacturing

Boeing has invested in Gamma Alloys, a company in Valencia, California, that pursues breakthroughs in nano-reinforced aluminum alloys for greater strength and improved wear resistance across a wider range of temperatures. Boeing spotted an opportunity in Gamma Alloys to further reduce the weight of its products. Upskill, another startup receiving investment, makes software for augmented reality eyewear. The products by the Washington, D.C., company can enhance productivity, quality and safety in manufacturing, field service and logistics.

Incubating and accelerating startups

Moving forward, HorizonX will continue to host openpitch competitions that encourage smaller companies to present innovative ideas and pursue venture capital investment from Boeing. These events enable Boeing to forge commercial agreements with startups and offer them visibility with a wide variety of business lines and customers, as well as establish connections with Boeing’s vast network.

The Boeing HorizonX India Innovation Challenge 1.0, launched in November 2017, is aimed at energizing aerospace innovation in India’s startup ecosystem. Finalists will receive funding to participate in a three-month accelerator program at T-Hub, one of the largest startup ecosystem builders in India.

Supporting a more connected world

Zunum Aero, another Boeing HorizonX Ventures portfolio company, is developing alternative propulsion systems with the potential for performance and efficiency improvements in a range of aerospace applications. Based in Kirkland, Washington, Zunum Aero is studying where hybrid and fully electric propulsion technologies can influence the market, primarily in smaller regional aircraft segments below Boeing’s current product line.

The latest investment in advanced battery technology startup Cuberg represents Boeing’s commitment to electric propulsion technology development. In its Berkeley, California, lab, Cuberg developed a high-energy battery cell that could prove to be a safe, stable solution for future electric air transportation.