In a partial break with its partner Uber – as well as its own historical business model – Bell plans to vertically integrate aircraft production, flight operations and nearly everything in between, in order to grab a large piece of the nascent electric-vertical-take-off-and-landing (eVTOL) air taxi industry.
The helicopter and tiltrotor manufacturer believes that the volume of eVTOL air taxi flights to come in the future will require closely coordinated, vertically integrated companies to ensure passenger safety and corporate profitability.
The company is pushing headlong into software development of a variety of applications to syncronise a tall order of business operations. At CES in January 2020, it announced the first step in that effort, a software program named AerOS which is to be a platform for a larger suite of eVTOL support software, including master scheduling and real-time aircraft monitoring. The company plans to use the software itself, but also license it to other air taxi operators and eVTOL manufacturers.
Bell anticipates thousands of eVTOLs operating within some major cities. The company says choreographing operations such operations, with each aircraft flying around 2,000h per year, can’t be done with human personnel.
EVTOLs may be asked to land at special urban airports, called vertiports, empty and then reload passengers in less than 15 minutes, maybe faster, explains Bell.
“That is incredible pace,” says Matt Holvey, innovation manager of intelligent systems at Bell. “You run the risk of human fatigue and human error. A fleet of aircraft is going to require a fleet of operators, hands on deck, all alert, all the time. Or, you can validate software systems, just like you validate aircraft software systems. Have autonomous systems with human oversight, managing and overseeing and coordinating this end-to-end solution.”
What’s more, with battery energy density remaining the chief limiting factor of eVTOL aircraft the company believes operators will need to constantly match demand for flights with sufficiently charged electric aircraft. That is a balancing act which will likely be best done using algorithms and artificial intelligence, the firm says.
Bell aims to receive Federal Aviation Administration certification for its eVTOL aircraft, to be based on the recently unveiled four-rotor Nexus 4EX demonstrator, in the mid-2020s. It believes the air taxi industry will take off shortly thereafter.
In advance of the eVTOL industry taking shape, Bell is planning to roll out a suite of software that will handle fleet scheduling, vehicle health monitoring, cargo routing, airspace integration, trip booking, route optimisation, and MRO work, among other applications.
The rotorcraft manufacturer plans for its software to be modular and as open as possible to collaboration with other app makers and vehicle manufacturers.
“The theory behind this is it is open and usable by any aircraft platform,” says Holvey. “I was under specific instructions… This needs to be open and available and as flexible and agile as possible.”
The company acknowledges that it does not have much of a track record in the realm of software development. In fact, Bell formed part of its software development team by pulling staff from its corporate IT department.
As a starting point for building experience and expertise, the firm notes its Mission Link software, which monitors health and usage of several of its commercial helicopter models.
Bell’s move into the world of flight operations and support software encroaches on the realm of Uber, the eVTOL industry’s leading cheerleader, who had hoped to translate its experience helping passengers hail rides on the ground into a similar business model in the air.
Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall that it would likely compete with traditional airframers, Uber announced on the same day Bell revealed its AerOS software to the public, 6 January, that it would work with carmaker Hyundai to manufacture an eVTOL aircraft