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Bell Helicopter offers a sneak peek of its first electric flying taxi

Bell Helicopter offers a sneak peek of its first electric flying taxi


The Fort Worth-based company claims to be the first helicopter manufacturer to present at CES

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Image: Bell Helicopter

Helicopters aren’t typically found among the gadget and car insanity at CES, but Bell Helicopter doesn’t want to be seen as your typical purveyor of vertical flight. The company made the trek from its headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, to Sin City this week to show off its latest futuristic concept: an electric flying taxi.

Well, it didn’t bring the entire aircraft, mind you. Bell just brought the cabin, in an effort to highlight the passenger experience. It plans to unveil the entire vehicle, complete with rotors and powertrain, at a later date. “We’re just keeping our particular propulsion system in configuration to ourselves right now, to keep our competition on their on their heels,” said Scott Drennen, Bell’s director of innovation.

“keep our competition on their on their heels”

Drennan is coming to CES with an arsenal of buzzwords at his disposal to woo the gathered techies — and hopefully do a little recruiting for Bell while he’s at it. “This vehicle is going to be a part of the Internet of Things,” he told The Verge. “The customer will be experiencing a part of the Internet of Things as they travel in the vehicle, with the connectivity that’s going to happen from the place they took off from to the place they’re going, with the ability to connect to friends, workers, colleagues, et cetera.”

The strategy was to build an interior cabin space that acclimates the passenger to the unique qualities of vertical flight. Bell calls it a “comforting, relaxing space.” If passengers don’t feel comfortable riding in an electric-powered air taxi (essentially a cross between a helicopter and a drone), then the idea of a brand-new, mass transportation service will never take off. Today, people who use helicopters for point-to-point travel are almost exclusively pretty wealthy. Bell says it wants its electric air taxis to be accessible to everyone else.

Image: Bell Helicopter
Image: Bell Helicopter

“If you think about the folks that we want to ride on these vehicles: my grandma and her grandkids, my two daughters — three people that essentially would never have a chance to get around in a helicopter,” Drennan said. 

The air taxi concept is similar in many ways to another aircraft revealed last year: the FCX-001. Looking like a helicopter from Metal Gear Solid, the concept vehicle was meant to serve as a platform for some of Bell’s ideas about the future of vertical flight. Notable elements in the FCX-001’s design include a hybridized propulsion, shape-shifting rotor blades, an extensive use of glass in the fuselage, gull-wing doors, and the use of augmented reality in the cockpit to control the aircraft.

it looks like a helicopter from ‘Metal Gear Solid’

The goal of the FCX-001 was to “give Bell a more modern look,” Drennan said. “And we start to reflect that a bit in the air taxi cabin as well.” 

Bell was among a group of aircraft manufacturers that said last year it would work with Uber to create a network of on-demand, electric VTOL (or eVTOL) aircraft. Bell, one of the largest manufacturers of commercial and military vertical takeoff vehicles in the US (it produces both the V-22 Osprey and the forthcoming V-280 Valor), said it hopes to have a hybrid electric aircraft built and ready for flight by Uber’s target demonstration date of 2020.

“Early [2020s] is realistic for the demo, and then mid [2020s] for a certified vehicle,” Drennen said. “And that would be that at requisite low level production rates in the beginning.”

Bell may have other motives in joining the hype parade at CES than just showing off a cool air taxi concept. The helicopter industry has experienced one of the sharpest disruptions caused by the slide in global oil prices. Bell is owned by global aerospace conglomerate Textron, which also includes Cessna Aircraft, Beechcraft, and other companies. A pivot from helicopters to eVTOL would be a signal to investors that the company is looking towards the future.

A recent uptick in oil prices has some in the industry predicting a recovery in sales and perhaps even some modest growth. But Bell isn’t content to wait, instead looking to Uber and the buzz around “flying cars” to help buoy its stock prices.