The air taxi space is crowded — if not on paper, then with prototypes and flying demos. Bell Helicopter, a Textron Inc. company, is a global helicopter leader and no stranger to the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) world. It announced the Bell Nexus, a hybrid-electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft a few years ago at CES. This year, we caught up with the team at CES in Las Vegas to find out what it looks like and what it means for our future mobility needs by 2023.
Bell Nexus eVTOL — The Air Taxi of The Future?
So far, we’ve seen air taxis come in different sizes, shapes, and looks. But rarely do they come with more than 4 seats. Bell showed us the full-size demonstration of its Nexus eVTOL, and it was big. In fact, it was so big we couldn’t shoot full-size pictures of it in the large space of its CES booth.
The company also showed two unmanned delivery aircraft systems (UAS), otherwise also known as drones, along with flight control simulator booths. But nothing could overshadow how imposing the Bell Nexus was and is.
Did we say the Bell Nexus is big, really big? Perhaps it’s because videos and pictures don’t always convey the size, proportion, or impact these aircraft have. With its massive 90-degree 6 tilting rotors, it houses 4 passengers and a pilot cockpit. It is powered by a hybrid-electric propulsion system using a Safran turbine. One battery pack sits on top of the aircraft in front of the turbine, and another pack below the aircraft frame. The Nexus will use Bell’s lift concept, with the 6 tilting ducted fans designed to be safe, redundant, and fairly quiet for air travel. Mitch Snyder, President and CEO of Bell, said:
“As space at the ground level becomes limited, we must solve transportation challenges in the vertical dimension – and that’s where Bell’s on-demand mobility vision takes hold. The industry has anticipated the reveal of our air taxi for some time, so Bell is very proud of this moment. We believe the design, taken with our strategic approach to build this infrastructure, will lead to the successful deployment of the Bell Nexus to the world.”
Mike Hirschberg, VFS Executive Director, also added: “The unveiling of the Bell Nexus concept highlights that the ‘Electric VTOL Revolution’ is gaining momentum.” To say the least, it is gaining a lot of momentum when a heavyweight player as Bell reveals its Nexus eVTOL.
Scott Drennan, Bell VP of Innovation, specifically told us: “Unveiling the Bell Nexus at CES was an incredible experience, and we are happy so many others were able to join us as we shared Bell’s vision for On Demand Mobility.”
Bell Nexus eVTOL, Building on 75 Years of Vertical Flight
What makes Bell a natural for an eVTOL is its famous V‑22 Osprey, the military half plane, half helicopter tiltrotor it designed in the early 1980s with the Bell Boeing tiltrotor team. The V-22 Osprey was a development if its highly complex 1966 X-22A Navy Tri-Service Assault Transport Program. It housed no fewer than 11 gearboxes to actuate the four tilting ducted propellers. In order to build a more modern eVTOL, Bell had to find new partners for its Nexus.
Besides Safran, the Nexus crew teamed up with EPS, Thales, Moog, and Garmin. Bell chose EPS for its energy storage systems, Thales for its Flight Control Computer (FCC) hardware and software, Moog for the flight control actuation systems, and Garmin for avionics and the vehicle management computer (VMC). An alternative reality (AR) app showed how the components of the Nexus VTOL are laid out.
The 6 propellers are housed in a tilting duct, which cuts down on noise compared to conventional helicopters. The noise wave is propagated up and down instead of spread horizontally. Once the Bell Nexus reaches a high enough altitude, the propellers tilt forward and the Nexus rests on two short airplane wings. The aircraft uses a the V-tail configuration that we were told also reduces the noise of the turbine when in use.
Bell Nexus Announces An Aggressive Roadmap
The Nexus will weigh around 6,500 lb and can land on a 40-foot by 40-foot landing pad. Its range is 150 miles flown in an hour. But Bell announced a particularly aggressive roadmap aiming for the cost to eventually be 50 cents a mile. Mind you — we don’t expect to see these numbers at the beginning of its service.
We talked to a few team members and notably Kyle Heironimus, who works on Nexus engineering. He told us that the Bell Nexus was designed to use various energy drivetrain configurations. This leads me to believe the Nexus will eventually become a fully electric aircraft, as soon as battery density improves enough.
Overall, the team told us the Nexus was designed around safety, which also means plenty of redundant systems, as with anything in aviation. Most obvious is the use of a dual generator system, which means the Bell Nexus is capable of flying or coming to a safe landing in case one of its rotors should fail. It can also handle one rotor failure, using the 5 others to balance its flight.
Bell Shows Its Last-Mile Autonomous Pod Transport Vehicle
Bell also showed its Autonomous Pod Transport (APT), a 20 to 100 lb transport drone that meets various requirements, from medical to law enforcement (and more).
It also showed its Future Flight Controls simulator, with a never-ending line of CES participants exploring where it collects data for its future flight controls. The data gathered will be used to determine what actions and interfaces are most intuitive to the average potential operator and what prior experiences and abilities contribute to these opinions.
Bell Nexus, An Old Idea Turned Into A Modern eVTOL
Needless to say, I was very impressed with the Bell Nexus, both in terms of size and the sheer amount of expertise the company has going into it. Bell has been around since 1943, with over 35,000 helicopters sold. This was another case of a traditional OEM showing how it can rise to the modern challenges of our future mobility needs.
One thing we’d love to request from Bell next year: Please, don’t display a black aircraft at CES. It’s close to impossible to take pictures or film. We suggest white, light blue, or any other light colors that accentuate contrasts. In any case, we can’t wait to see more of the Bell Nexus eVTOL.