Bell Reveals a Surprisingly Down-to-Earth Air Taxi

Bell's Nexus, revealed at CES in Las Vegas, represents what Bell says is an all-in commitment to a future of aeromobility. Bell

The past two years have seen visions of traffic-hopping bliss delivered via spry air taxis coming at us like peregrine falcons dive-bombing pigeons, and Bell just made sure 2019 won’t be any different. At CES this afternoon, the aerospace company unveiled its own view of this future. The 6,000-pound Nexus comes equipped with a 150-mile range, a top speed of 150 mph, expansive windows for someday-to-be-dazzled passengers, an augmented-reality-enhanced flight experience, and—most importantly—a grounding in reality that will likely prove to be the envy of all air taxi startups.

But Bell’s real advantage is experience. As the company behind the V-22 Osprey and V-280 Valor tiltrotors, as well as decades of military and civilian helicopters, it knows its way around the design and manufacturing of vertical-lift aircraft. That CV makes it stand out in a young industry filled with startups.

That industry is based on the idea that quiet, efficient, and safe air taxis (aka flying cars) with electric power and high-tech control systems will allow safe operation by either computers or human pilots with minimal specialized training. That, the thinking goes, will drop commute times from hours to minutes. Nexus represents what Bell says is its all-in commitment to that future. “No road-based solutions will be as scalable, quiet, clean, and fast enough,” says Michael Thacker, Bell’s VP of technology and innovation. “It’s more than a two-dimensional world. Small urban aircraft can play a role where current solutions cannot keep up with our needs.”

The chunky chopper, which carries four passengers plus one pilot—eventually to be replaced by autonomous controls—is one of only two efforts from companies with significant experience in vertical-lift aircraft design and manufacturing, the other being Airbus with its Vahana concept. It’s entering a field otherwise populated by diverse concepts from the likes of aviation newbies including Larry Page-funded Kittyhawk, Uber, Joby, and Lilium. But it’s one of the only concepts engineered with serious caveats in mind, namely that neither autonomy nor entirely battery-based propulsion will be practical at the early stages of the air taxi business. The Nexus will be engineered for simplified operation by so-called “minimally trained” pilots—a key attribute given today’s growing shortage of airline pilots. Its six motors will pull power from a turbine engine, not a battery. When technology allows, autonomous systems will take the controls, and the turbine can be replaced with a suitable cell pack.

Bell’s approach to designing the Nexus has focused on four challenges, which it calls “frameworks.” First, there’s developing the operational requirements for an air taxi—the performance parameters in terms of range payload and how the aircraft will integrate into public airspace. Then there are the regulatory and certification issues associated with a new aircraft class such as this, which looms like a giant buzzkill of a wall in front of all air taxi boosters. The company is also addressing the manufacturing challenges and the technological questions that come with a new kind of aircraft, including the new propulsion and control systems. Beyond these, it’s also keenly aware of the public approval element that will fuel acceptance—or rejection—of new whirlybirds. “This is not a recreational vehicle or a toy,” says Scott Drennan, Bell’s VP of innovation. “The size is both comforting and impressive, and an indication that it will be a real product in the future.”

Beyond clever design, Bell’s experience in mass aircraft production may prove to be its real differentiator.

Bell

Another indicator is the caliber of the partners Bell has assembled for the effort. Safran, a French jet engine specialist, will design the hybrid propulsion system. Thales, also French, will handle the flight control computers. Batteries will come from EPS, flight control hardware from Moog, and avionics from Garmin, which will tie all the systems together and allow for much less complicated operation than that in a conventional aircraft.

To crack that new kind of operating system, Bell is using simulators to collect data from likely pilot candidates—i.e., “regular” people with no flight training—about what kinds of control movements and user interfaces would work best in the aircraft. The conventional yoke-and-pedals flight controls could yield to an entirely new control system. (Aircraft that fly with multiple rotors mostly maneuver by altering the relative speeds of the different rotors.) These simulators are set up at CES with the Nexus mockup, and will be also deployed at schools and festivals, including South by Southwest later this year.

Bell also insists that safety will be paramount, the better to assuage the nervous Nellies who might look askance at even the most robustly designed hot new flyer. The Nexus system will be designed to fly safely even if one of the fans becomes disabled, and if the turbine engine in the hybrid propulsion system fails, the on-board battery, though relatively small, will have enough power to safely land or even continue the flight. The Nexus won’t be able to autorotate the way a helicopter can if it loses engine power—that maneuver, in which the rotor still generates lift even when unpowered, relies on momentum available only in a larger rotor than Nexus will have—nor will it have a ballistic parachute as some air taxi manufacturers are planning. Bell is confident that multiple redundant power systems will enable safe operation in an emergency. Even the battery packs will be designed with failure in mind: The custom packs will include a containment system for each cell that will keep damage, such as fires, from spreading. “Even if one battery and the engine fails, it will still be able to fly,” says propulsion engineer Kyle Heironimus.

What may prove to be the program’s greatest asset, however, is Bell’s experience in mass aircraft production, which few of its competitors can match. Not only will the Nexus be made entirely out of lightweight carbon fiber—which is tricky to produce at high volumes—but it and other air taxi models will need to be made in the thousands, rather than the hundreds that most aircraft manufacturers can muster today, in order for this business to become truly viable. But given that manufacturing is one of the four frameworks Bell has been focusing on from the outset, Nexus would already seem to have a major jump on its competition in that respect alone.

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