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The Woomera Range Complex in southern Australia is a long way from Boeing’s Commercial Airplane headquarters in suburban Seattle. At this site on February 27, the company’s prototype named Loyal Wingman, a small combat drone for the Royal Australian Air Force, left the ground for the first time.

While some 8,250 miles away from where Boeing anchors its commercial jet business, Loyal Wingman is carrying the unit’s future on its tiny wings. How the new prototype came to be is even more consequential than what it is designed to do. Loyal Wingman was conceived and manufactured from scratch using model-based systems engineering (MBSE) tools — technologies Boeing is betting will lay the foundation for its next all-new commercial airliner, still years away.

Related: The linchpin technology behind Boeing’s 797

Boeing’s goal is to bring customer and regulatory requirements for the new airliner to life using MBSE, melding traditional 3D engineering designs with manufacturing and maintenance into a single interconnected simulation — a digital twin of its real world aircraft program. The Air Current has previously explored this digital evolution as Boeing has sought to remake the process, cost and speed of designing aircraft as its own efforts at development have become increasingly more costly, protracted and troubled.


David Calhoun, Boeing’s chief executive officer said in January that maturing these design and manufacturing tools is “really important in the next run” and “trying to demonstrate to ourselves at scale…becomes the most important criteria for us with respect to announcing that next airplane. It’s got to depend on these advanced technologies, and it will,” said Calhoun.

It’s remarkably easy to be drowned in the buzzwords and hype of Industry 4.0, the marketing-driven branding behind the digital tools and data that describe the future of manufacturing. Yet, while Boeing seeks to prove the viability of developing a digital twin alongside ever-more complex real world aircraft, these new engineering systems lie at the intersection of technology and culture.

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Jon Ostrower is Editor-in-chief of The Air Current. Prior to launching TAC in June 2018, Ostrower served as Aviation Editor for CNN Worldwide, guiding the network's global coverage of the business and operations of flying. Ostrower joined CNN in 2016 following four and half years at the Wall Street Journal. Based first in Chicago and then in Washington, D.C. he covered Boeing, aviation safety and the business of global aerospace. Before that, Ostrower was editor of the award-winning FlightBlogger for Flightglobal and Flight International Magazine covering the development of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and other new aircraft programs from 2007 to 2012. Ostrower, a Boston native, graduated from The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs with a bachelor's degree in Political Communication. He is based in Seattle.

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