Scott Drennan, Director of Innovation, left; Michael Thacker, Executive Vice President for Technology and Innovation, right; center top, rendering of the Nexus air taxi on a rooftop vertiport; center bottom, the APT 70 logistics craft in Yamato Transport livery. Image: Bell

Bell outlines air taxi strategy at aviation industry events

Events Logistics • freight • delivery Passengers • air-taxi

Bell, a unit of Textron Corp. formerly known as Bell Helicopter, has briefed the aviation industry at two events on its Urban Air Mobility (UAM) vision for the next decade, following its exhibit in early January at the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas of a full-scale mockup of the Nexus, its hybrid eVTOL 5-seat air taxi currently in development which features a tilting ducted fans design [video].

Like other so-called OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) such as Airbus, Boeing and Embraer who supply aircraft to the world’s airlines and operators — and who remind startups that the aerospace giants have long experience not only with aeronautics, but also manufacturing, certification, regulations and operations — Bell is embracing the eVTOL (Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing) revolution promoted by its partner Uber Elevate. However, parallel to the Nexus project, Bell is focusing on a logistics platform called the Autonomous Pod Transport (APT), a family of c-drones of different sizes sharing a similar 4- or 8-rotor tail-sitter design [video]. Although the company founded in 1935 believes viable commercial air taxi operations will be possible by the mid-2020s, logistics deliveries will start even sooner; a demonstration flight of the APT 70 model is planned next year in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, where Bell is headquartered.

At a keynote speech on January 30 at the Vertical Flight Society’s 6th Annual Electric VTOL Symposium in Phoenix, Arizona, Michael Thacker, Executive Vice President for Technology and Innovation, outlined the company’s UAM vision for the future:

Mobility challenges are becoming more common for the average American — and across the world. As our population grows, so do the transportation challenges many urban areas are facing, and no road-based solution will be scalable enough, clean enough, quiet enough, or fast enough to solve the full extent of the issues generated. Further, when we consider affordability and community impact, the cost of ground or underground infrastructure is significant when compared to taking to the skies. Since the first skyscraper was built, cities have been destined to become multi-dimensional, yet we still think, plan and build our mobility solutions in a two-dimensional world, limited to places our feet can touch. With the convergence of key technological advancements, however, small, urban aircraft can play a role where the current solution set is not keeping up with our needs.

At Bell, we are creating new concepts of mobility to make the transportation of people and goods more efficient and effective. We believe the real solutions to the urban mobility challenge lie not in traditional options, but in new systems based on multi-modal possibilities. We are actively developing systems for urban air transportation with electric and hybrid-electric VTOL aircraft. The concept of an “Air Taxi” is nothing new; we have been moving people over urban obstacles for decades with traditional rotorcraft. What is new is the emergence and development of technologies that enable safe, quiet, efficient, affordable urban air mobility operations at scale, using small, heavily automated electric and hybrid vertical lift aircraft. […]

Autonomous, electric or hybrid-electric, distributed-propulsion VTOL aircraft could serve many roles across many industries, including 3PL (third-party logistics) and retail logistics, as well as first responder support for search and rescue, medical transport, disaster relief and more. With urban population growth and same-day delivery demand at an all-time high, the logistics market has grown exponentially over the past few years. Third-party logistics businesses are looking to find new innovative ways to create exceptional customer experiences.

Bell is actively developing a family of vehicles called Autonomous Pod Transport. We have already begun flying our APT 20 vehicle, the smallest in the family, and just recently completed the first flight of APT 70. The aircraft are designed to be fully autonomous, taking off vertically before rotating 90 degrees to forward flight, then flying along waypoints on a predetermined route; it transitions back to vertical flight for landing.

This vehicle can transport goods for multiple distances, such as distribution center to distribution center, or to storefronts and potentially last-mile delivery. However, Bell is not targeting the last mile delivery to your door, which is fraught with potential issues like privacy, property damage, and theft to name a few. We are focused on moderate payload, mid-range operations that are in most cases being served by trucks today.

The earliest opportunities will be for high-value and urgent cargo. Operations from ship to shore and from distribution center to distribution center have similar range and payload requirements and are opportunities that have been confirmed with potential customers like Yamato, the largest package logistics carrier in Japan. Bell has signed a cooperative agreement with Yamato in Japan to collaboratively demonstrate APT operations and potential integration into their logistics network.

At the same conference, Mark Moore, a former NASA engineer now at Uber Elevate, presented Uber’s ambitions for air taxi service in Dallas and Los Angeles by 2023 (plus a third city outside the US which will be announced in June), with five partner companies supplying eVTOL aircraft: Boeing’s Aurora Flight Sciences, EmbraerX, Karem Aircraft, Pipistrel Vertical Solutions, and Bell.

Today there are over 100 eVTOL aircraft proposed, planned, in development, or in flight testing, from the impractical to the serious; the Vertical Flight Society, organizer of the Electric VTOL Symposium, maintains an informative list on its site [See our interview with Mike Hirschberg, Executive Director of the VFS.]

Yesterday, at the Vertical Flight Society’s “Electric VTOL Revolution” panel at the Helicopter Association International (HAI) Heli-Expo in Atlanta, Georgia, Scott Drennan, Director of Innovation at Bell, talked about “Lift As A Service”. In a brief presentation, he reiterated Thacker’s points, adding however:

[There is] a great opportunity to go beyond just being an OEM and a service provider to those vehicles, to start thinking about operational models, infrastructure and the like, that really need to be pulled together under one umbrella to have success in the future. […]

We’re not really thinking about last mile, although we’re open to discussing it with folks, we’re talking about beyond the last mile, really shoring up complex logistic systems, moving goods from distribution centers to hubs or kiosks, rather than get the soccer sneakers to everybody’s yard.

One of our best achievements was winning the NASA SIO (System Integration & Operationalization) contract, that’s about getting the APT 70 system, a 325 lb (150 kg) aircraft, into more relevant environments for true operations. We’re partnered with NASA and the FAA to do that around three missions. One is an urban emergency medical supply and the other is disaster relief and the third is kind of shallow water, oil rigs. The team is now focusing on that urban critical medical transport, that’s the plan for 2020, we’re going to fly through some very complex airspace in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and deliver some medical equipment or goods to its final destination. Great challenge and looking forward to accomplish in that in the next year.

Like Airbus (see our article on their UAM strategy), Bell believes that the first generation of eVTOL passenger aircraft will be more easily certified as manned by pilots, although the craft will be designed to be autonomous.

To accelerate development of its hybrid eVTOL Nexus, which involves new technologies such as distributed electric motors and advanced data processing for automation, Bell has grouped external suppliers into a team. They are Safran (the hybrid propulsion and drive systems), EPS Electric Power Systems (managed energy storage systems), Thales (Flight Control Computer or FCC hardware and software), Moog (flight control actuation systems), Garmin (integration of the avionics and the vehicle management computer or VMC), and sister company Textron Systems (Synturion situational awareness and ground control).

Bell is also leveraging the Nexus to attract and recruit its next generation of aerospace engineers, using imagery of the project and its ducted fan testing in promotional materials.