The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Bell Trials with NASA Move APT Autonomous Cargo Vehicle Toward Commercialization

Taking a step toward commercializing its Autonomous Pod Transport (APT) cargo vehicle, Bell recently completed a successful demonstration of the uncrewed eVTOL aircraft with the use of ground-based detect-and-avoid (DAA) sensors as part of a NASA Systems Integration and Operationalization (SIO) project.

Flight trials conducted in December showed the APT’s ability to integrate with ground radar systems, a key capability for operation in airspace traffic, Bell said, calling this a critical component for advanced air mobility vehicles.

The demonstration involved a beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) mission using DAA technology to scan complex airspace for “natural intruders.” As part of the demonstration, Bell equipped one of its 429 helicopters with its QuantiFly aircraft communication unit—which is powered by Truth Data and provides automatic flight data monitoring—to record telemetry information.

The radar systems monitored the airspace within the AllianceTexas Mobility Innovation Zone (MIZ), close to Bell's Dallas-area headquarters, to track both manned and unmanned aircraft. Real estate group Hillwood, which owns the MIZ site, in 2019 announced the creation of the zone north of Fort Worth Alliance Airport to provide space for testing, scaling, and commercializing technologies.

“We are honored to partner with Bell to launch the testing initiatives as they work with NASA to lay the foundation for the future of budding air technologies,” said Christopher Ash, senior v-p of aviation business development for Hillwood. “The data they receive from these efforts will enable the industry to advance the commercialization of this technology across multiple platforms.”

The trials further involved a collaboration with the Northwest Independent School District (NISD), which facilitated the installation of radar at its Outdoor Learning Center.

The demonstration was among several for the APT that Bell has been conducting in commercial and military applications. John Wittmaak, program manager for unmanned aerial systems at Bell, told reporters in a recent briefing that over the past year, “We really focused on maturing the APT platform, its software, its user interfaces, to make it simple to operate…ultimately making this more affordable for commercial entities to operate in the commercial space.”

Noting that considerable progress has been made, Wittmaak added that the company believes it has matured the APT to the point where Bell is ready this year to “explore a collaborative partnership, pilot programs, proof of concepts with commercial entities” in preparation for certification and commercialization.

Bell is eyeing potential partners that could represent a range of applications, from third-party logistics to retailers and healthcare systems. In addition, Bell has demonstrated capabilities on the military front, including participating on multiple occasions at the U.S. Army Expeditionary War Fighter Experiment in Fort Benning, Georgia.

Wittmaak said the design of the APT, which takes off vertically but transitions to on-wing flight, enables it to operate at higher speeds, carry heavier loads, and provide more flexibility in missions than many unmanned aircraft. The aircraft can carry payloads up to 100 pounds, fly up to 35 miles, and reach speeds between 60 and 80 mph.  The target capacity, he noted, is 70 pounds. However, the APT has carried up to 110 pounds in testing.

The APT incorporates an “H-Frame” fitted with propellers and electrical motors on the ends for the vertical takeoff and then the frame becomes the wings. After weighing numerous applications, Bell has developed a pod that can be centered in the frame and incorporates a “trap door” of sorts to release cargo. However, the APT could also carry up to four “backpacks” that could hold cargo.