While Textron still clearly harbors strong ambitions in the electric aviation and wider advanced air mobility sector, the U.S. aerospace group has all but confirmed that its Bell business’s long-awaited Nexus eVTOL aircraft will not be its first product in this market, at least not in its current iteration. In a November 24 interview with FutureFlight, Rob Scholl, the senior Textron executive appointed nine months ago to lead its eAviation team, acknowledged that Nexus is not an active program and said that the company will not confirm plans to bring a passenger-carrying eVTOL model to market until it confirms a business case for doing so.
“Nexus has been in the works for five years and it has been a useful exercise to test the [all-electric] technology and market feedback,” Scholl explained. “Bell has continued to evolve designs internally and develop the technologies, and we have a good view of these in terms of the technology roadmap. We will continue to invest [in this area] as it makes sense, but we still have to see further development of the battery technology and the economic case.”
Bell unveiled the Nexus eVTOL concept in early 2019 and the company was previously named by Uber as a partner in its Elevate urban air mobility plans. However, since around early 2020, when it introduced the revised 4EX version and announced a partnership with Japan's Sumitomo group just before the Covid pandemic broke out, the company has had little to say publicly about progress with the project.
By contrast, in late September, Airbus unveiled its long-awaited plans to develop a four-passenger eVTOL aircraft called CityAirbus NextGen. This project is being led by the European aerospace group's Airbus Helicopters division, which competes directly with Bell in the rotorcraft market.
Textron's rotorcraft division has worked on its Autonomous Pod Transport drone concept with similar motivations, but, again, does not yet see a clear path to market. “We’ve looked at working with [defense-orientated] Textron Systems on that, but we see the same challenges in terms of economics,” Scholl said. “A lot of these technologies that are in the early phases are very cost-sensitive.”
Essentially, Textron appears to feel no commercial time pressure from attention-seeking start-ups racing to bring eVTOL models into commercial service around 2024. “The economics of these models are the key,” said Scholl. “We could bring an aircraft to market, one that would be robust, pass the regulations, and work operationally, but it has to work for the public and that could take time; this market [for eVTOL passenger flights] could develop in waves.”
So far, most of the eAviation team's efforts have focused on discussions with possible technology and capital partners. Scholl’s role has been to understand what each Textron business unit is or could contribute to the group’s plans for electric aviation and assess “where and how we can participate.” He said that this exercise will continue into 2022, and Textron may announce further partnerships beyond those it has with Surf Air and Ampaire to convert the Grand Caravan aircraft to hybrid-electric propulsion, and with Xwing, which is working on remotely piloted operations with this ubiquitous utility model. Separately, MagniX is also advancing plans to convert the Caravan to electric propulsion.
Scholl said that the SkyCourier is another Textron aircraft that could benefit from electrification. Quizzed as to whether the company has similar plans for its King Air family, in view of start-up Bye Aerospace’s plans to develop an electric challenger called the eFlyer 800, he noted that the task is more challenging for an aircraft of that size.
That said, Textron’s customer base is increasingly pressing for the introduction of more environmentally sustainable aircraft. Scholl acknowledged that this market pressure, on top of momentum in the same direction from its own workforce, is a significant factor as it advances plans around reducing its products’ dependence on fossil fuels, while also trying to reduce the carbon footprint of its production process.
“There’s a lot of interest in sustainability from customers across the spectrum, and the industry would like to see fuels [like 100LL avgas] phased out,” Scholl said. “Electrification could be the way out for this, and we’re talking to customers involved in areas such as training and special missions, as well as individual aircraft owners.”
But autonomous flight, including remotely piloted operations, may take longer to adopt in Textron’s view, even though Bell is working on increased automation for some of its existing helicopters. “Technology isn’t the biggest challenge,” concluded Scholl. “It’s airspace integration and public acceptance. If we do autonomy too quickly, the public may not accept it for a long time and it could stunt its growth.”
The recent launch of the CityAirbus NextGen program follows extensive flight trials with the CityAirbus and Vahana technology demonstrators. The design unveiled during September 21 sustainability conference in Toulouse is a fixed-wing aircraft, with a V-shaped tail and eight sets of electric motors and propellers.
An engineering team led by Airbus Helicopters is working on the detailed design, with the aim of achieving the first flight with a prototype in 2023, en route to type certification in 2025. It will carry up to four passengers on flights of up to 80 km (50 miles) and at speeds of 120 km/h (75 mph).
In April, Italian rotorcraft manufacturer Leonardo confirmed plans to develop a hybrid-electric-powered light helicopter that could be available in the second half of this decade. The company said it will likely use the prototypes for its new AW09 aircraft as technology demonstrators for the new project.
Back in 2013, Leonardo announced plans to develop electric and hybrid-electric concepts for a new tiltrotor aircraft through its Project Zero initiative. This was based on a technology demonstrator that the Italian company, then called AgustaWestland, had already flown secretly in 2011 and 2012, but the project has since been abandoned.