This is Bell Nexus, the “air taxi” concept from the company formerly known as Bell Helicopter. A hyrbid-electric propulsion aircraft, the Nexus will use six tilting ducted fans to take off and land vertically from a rooftop or launchpad. And more importantly, you may be able to hail one for a crosstown trip using Uber’s new aerial service in the not-too-distant future.
Air taxis, or flying cars if you’re feeling saucy, are enjoying an upswing in popularity, and the Fort Worth, Texas-based Bell is hoping to seize the moment. The company rebranded itself last year as a technology company, after decades as one of the top manufacturers of commercial and military vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft. (It produces both the V-22 Osprey and the forthcoming V-280 Valor.) It now wants to make electric VTOL (eVTOL) aircraft, with the Nexus as its first foray into that futuristic market.
Bell was one of the first aircraft manufacturers to team up with Uber in 2017, when the ride-hailing company first released its ambitious plan to create a network of city-based flying taxis as a way to alleviate street-level traffic. Since then, Bell has been hard at work on its own design, and at CES this week, it pulled back the curtain on its first concept.
Bell is aiming to have the Nexus in flight over a handful of major markets by the “mid-2020s,” said Scott Drennan, director of innovation at Bell. He argued that the key element about the aircraft was its “approachability,” which makes it the ideal vehicle for this proposed flying taxi service.
“This is not a toy,” Drennan told RR-Magazine. “This is an aircraft you would feel safe and comfortable bringing your family into.” The large ducts hide the rotors, which should help ease any anxiety from customers about losing a limb from its fast-spinning blades. In other words, “for people who aren’t accustomed to VTOL type aircraft,” Drennan said — which, arguably, is everyone who doesn’t regularly commute via helicopter.
Last year, Bell showed off the cabin of the then-unnamed air taxi, in effort to generate some buzz about its forthcoming plans. This year, it just has a scale model, and won’t have a workable prototype until the company is on the cusp of launching a real service. But Bell is ready to talk about some of the design choices that went into creating the Nexus.
Drennan said the Nexus can seat five people, and has a gross weight capacity of 600 pounds (272 kilograms). Bell went with a hybrid-electric propulsion system, rather than an all-electric one, so the aircraft could fly further and carry more weight. That’s because Bell doesn’t want the Nexus to be pigeonholed as just an air taxi. In this way, the company can hedge its bets in case this whole flying car craze we’re seeing these days doesn’t actually pan out.
“As we were looking at the available missions, whether it was air taxi, or logistics services, or even just applications in the military, we thought it was appropriate to get out into the longer range than just what the all-electric vehicles can do,” Drennan said.
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 flight companies. A pivot from helicopters to electric VTOL would be a signal to investors that the company is looking toward the future.
In 2016, Uber first introduced its plan to bring its ride-sharing capabilities to the airspace over cities, but the project still faces significant hurdles. The kind of aircraft Uber envisions shuttling passengers from rooftop to rooftop — electric, autonomous, with the ability to take off and land vertically — don’t really exist yet, nor does the infrastructure to support such a service. Experts suggest that engineering and regulatory hindrances may prevent flying cars from ever taking off in a meaningful way.
That’s not to say flying cars aren’t having a moment: at least 19 companies are developing flying-car plans. These include legacy manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus, and small startups like Kitty Hawk, owned by Google founder Larry Page. Meanwhile, Uber has made significant strides in partnering with a handful of aircraft manufacturers, real estate firms, and regulators to better its chances of developing a fully functional, on-demand flying taxi service.
Only all-electric VTOL aircraft will be included in Uber’s air taxi service, though, which would seem to preclude a hybrid propulsion system like Bell’s Nexus vehicle. That said, Mark Moore, engineering director of aviation at Uber, said the concept was an important “first step” toward an all-electric, fully commercial flying taxi service.
“This will permit testing to occur in the near-term, while the batteries are getting ready for all-electric solutions,” Moore told RR-Magazine. “We’re very excited about what Bell is doing. There are many companies out there developing [eVTOL] demonstrators. At Uber, we’re facilitating this entirely new transportation system because we are the link to the users.”