August 29, 2019
Bell has successfully flown its autonomous cargo pod, the APT 70 for the first time, a key step for the company as it looks to develop a fleet of self-flying aerial vehicles that can vertically take-off and land.
"It's a pretty substantial milestone," Michael Thacker, Bell's executive vice president of technology and innovation, told Cheddar on Wednesday.
"This fully autonomous flight taking off vertically, transitioning to horizontal flight, getting on-wing to fly twice as fast and twice as far as many of the quadcopters you might have seen, is a substantial accomplishment for Bell and a substantial move forward for our industry."
The all-electric APT 70 — full name: Autonomous Pod Transport 70 — can carry a 70-pound payload and reach speeds greater than 100 mph. The cargo drone itself weighs more than 300 pounds, and is powered by four electric motors and a battery.
Thacker explains that the APT 70 ascends like a helicopter, but that, as it rises from the ground, "it transitions forward onto the wings and flies like an airplane to make most of its mission that way much more efficient."
Aerial vehicles need to take off and land vertically, should companies hope to deploy them in urban (or otherwise crowded) environments, where wide-open runways are scarce.
The APT 70's first flight, announced Monday, was completed at the company's testing site in the Fort Worth-area.
Thacker says that initial operations of the vehicle will begin in rural areas "as we continue to develop and prove out the autonomy and get regulators and the public on board."
"This is for missions in a logistics space to start with, where you could go from a distribution center to a distribution center, [or] from a distribution center to the store, maybe to an off-shore location," he added.
Bell is already collaborating on the APT 70 with Yamato, a Japanese logistics company, to improve its package handling system, according to Bell's website.
The APT 70 represents a broader initiative by Bell to develop aircraft that take off and land vertically. That future fleet will include the widely-anticipated Nexus air taxi, which the company is working on in collaboration with Uber ($UBER).
In early 2018, Bell — a subsidiary of the conglomerate Textron ($TXT) — dropped "Helicopter" from its corporate name and rebranded itself as a more tech-forward, flight innovation company
Now Bell is just one firm among a slew of other startups and tech giants in the delivery-by-drone space, which includes Amazon and the Alphabet subsidiary Wing.