We are at a special place in our history. Very few times do you really have a chance to change the world.
With 2.5 billion new residents expected to join the world’s urban areas by 2050, the need for on-demand mobility (ODM) has never been greater. Even today, in densely populated urban areas, traffic comes to a standstill daily on many roads, costing cities billions of dollars annually.
In fact, the average amount of time a driver spends behind the wheel annually is equal to seven 40-hour work weeks in the office. Americans will waste $2.8 trillion on traffic by 2030 if these conditions persist. In the short term, companies like the peer-to-peer ridesharing service Uber have softened the blow. But alleviating society’s urban mobility issues will require much more of a shift in the status quo.
Fort Worth-based technology company Bell, one of the world’s leading helicopter manufacturers, set out to solve that challenge by looking to the skies. Known as the first to break the sound barrier and a pioneer in vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) technology, the 84-year-old company is working with partners to create a world where on-demand mobility extends to public air transit.
“For so long, we as a society have limited ourselves to the two-dimensional world of roads, buses and other traditional options,” said Michael Thacker, executive vice president of technology and innovation at Bell. “We’ve dreamed of flying cars for decades, but until very recently, they’ve remained flights of fancy. With the rapid pace of technological advancement, however, small, urban aircraft may well play a role where the current solution set has failed to keep up with our needs.”
Bell’s vision of a world where small, urban aircraft play a vital role in daily commutes has materialized into the Bell Nexus Air Taxi – a VTOL aircraft that has the potential to help solve urban mobility issues that have plagued city planners for decades. While Nexus is Bell’s brainchild, Bell has formed partnerships with five innovative companies from around the world to help bring the aircraft to the masses. Nexus is powered by a hybrid-electric propulsion system, with a gas turbine engine to drive the electric rotors, and features Bell’s powered lift concept, including six 8-foot ducted tiltrotor fans that allow the Bell Nexus to smoothly transition from vertical liftoff to horizontal flight.
Bell unveiled the latest prototype at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas – and the world’s collective jaw dropped. Thousands laid their eyes on the 5-person vehicle, which will eventually become one of an entire fleet of on-demand, autonomous, quiet VTOL aircraft transporting passengers at 150 miles per hour over traffic and across urban landscapes, with a 150-mile range.
Advances in processing power, flight controls, electric energy storage, electric motors, and other technologies behind the Bell Nexus have opened the door to a future where safe, quiet, efficient, affordable urban air transportation can be a reality. However, the path toward the vertical dimension will come down to working in brand-new ways, according to Bell Executive Vice President of Engineering Innovation Scott Drennan.
“We knew that if we were going to bring society together in ways never thought possible, we were going to have to work together in ways never thought possible. Our teams have thrown out the conventional approach, where the responsibility of each element of the aircraft falls under a different partner, and we’ve been working together across boundaries in ways I’ve not seen in my 25 years in aerospace,” said Drennan.
Bell’s Team Nexus partners include Safran (the hybrid propulsion and drive systems), EPS (the energy storage systems), Thales (the Flight Control Computer hardware and software), Moog (flight control actuation system) and GPS expert Garmin, (integration of avionics and vehicle management computer).
Bell has also been collaborating with various public and private organizations across industries, regulatory agencies and other communities of interest to ensure urban mobility complements and extends a broader, multi-model transportation ecosystem. As one of the first partners, Bell joined forces with Uber for its Uber Elevate initiative, an aerial ridesharing program planned for 2023.
“Since the first skyscraper rose, cities have been destined to become multi-dimensional, yet we still plan and build in a two-dimensional world,” said Thacker. “As space at ground level is limited by existing infrastructure, it is imperative that the future of urban mobility look to the vertical dimension.”