A typical quadcopter drone is a small machine that uses four propellers to take off and land vertically, similarly a helicopter. And at first glimpse, a cargo-carrying drone from Bell called the APT 70 seems a bit like one of these flying machines–until you learn it is 6 feet tall, 9 feet wide, and can take 70-pound payload a distance of 35 miles.
It is not the type of drone designed to unload boxes in your yard. Rather, Bell sees it as a machine that could take medical equipment, military gear, industrial components, and tools, or help a shipping firm such as Japan’s Yamato with logistics. This machine flew in late last year, but this month flew a successful test flight, a flight which demonstrated its capacities that are autonomous maneuvers on its own back to flight.
Apart from its size, the APT 70, which means “Autonomous Pod Transport” and notes the number of pounds it can safely carry, has another capacity that really separates it from a standard drone. It’s really a biplane!
When flying, it places itself parallel to the floor, so the four propellers drag it over the air, and both broad main surfaces work as wings. Those wings give it to lift as the air passes over them, meaning that the propellers ask 50% less power when the drone is flying horizontally.
Bell Textron Inc has completed the first successful self-governing flight of its Autonomous Pod Transport (APT) 70 in a testing site around Fort Worth, Texas. Bell intends to continue to test the vehicle under an experimental type certificate throughout the remainder of the year.
“We are excited to reach this milestone, and look forward to continuing to advance this technology for our customers,” said Scott Drennan, vice president, innovation, Bell. “The APT is designed to be capable of various mission sets, from package delivery to critical medical transport to disaster relief. We believe this capability will change the way unmanned aerial systems are used commercially in the future.”
APT 70 is a part of eVTOL family of vehicles Bell is growing and can reach speeds of over 100 mph. Bell describes its APT systems are designed to allow for mission capabilities while maintaining operations quick, efficient, and easy.
Bell says its APT vehicles are capable of twice the speed and range of a traditional multirotor, while also being designed for quick deployment, rapid reconfiguration, and quick battery swap and recharge.
Throughout the Operationalization (SIO) demonstration and NASA Systems Integration activity, Bell will use the APT 70 to show a simulated business assignment in the national airspace system and run outside the visual line of sight (BVLOS) flight operations. The presentation is expected to be held in mid-2020.
Bell is also in collaboration with Yamato third-party logistics provider, to incorporate the bundle operating system of Yamato into the APT 70 for on-demand logistics services. The Yamato and Bell team ran a demonstration showcasing their systems working together into service.
“The drone is what we call a tail-sitting biplane,” says Scott Drennen, vice president of innovation at Bell.
The black and white pod in the center is where the freight goes, and the aerodynamic shape of that compartment lessens drag while also giving the craft a little lift.
In the current arrangement, that means that the freight in the pod will change its orientation that you wouldn’t wish to experience if you’re a passenger. (In other words, do not ship a game of Jenga this manner.) The pod starts vertical off becomes horizontal and then again vertical for landing. “It is not the most perfect configuration for individual’s transportation,” Drennen says–but that is not the assignment his firm has in mind for this drone. Drennan adds if necessary that they do have a layout that could maintain the pod positioned with a constant orientation.
The drone is smart enough to take the wind direction into account: For instance, when transitioning into horizontal flight such as a plane, it places its own wings and itself to face the wind, just like a regular airplane utilizes the breeze to maximize the lift its wings create takeoff and landing.
The drone is somewhat conceptually like the V-22 Osprey aircraft, also made by Bell (and Boeing), which takes off and lands just like a helicopter and flies like a plane. But that aircraft has big pods on the edges of the wings which revolve around with rotors, so the fuselage itself (as well as the team inside) stay level.
While the APT 70 is not designed to transport people, of course, it’s in the broader category of craft known as eVTOLS (electric vertical take-off and landing craft) which are, and might someday serve as airfares that whisk people around towns. Many organizations are working in this area –one of them are Boeing and a vehicle known as the PAV; Lilium and a small, futuristic-looking jet-like craft; Jaunt, which has plans to get a helicopter-like automobile; and Bell itself, whose aviation concept is a hybrid known as the Nexus.
It is unclear when folks might be able to catch rides in EVTOLS, but the new freight carrier of Bell is a presentation of using the technology to move non-living goods. Next year, Drennen says, they intend to add more sensors to the drone and take it on it on a more ambitious flight through the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
The saying goes Things are bigger and better in Texas, and it seems that goes for drones in addition to pickup trucks and cowboy hats. At least, for this Fort Worth-based Bell Flight company, the brand new APT -70 is sure an indication.
The vertical-lift electric UAV with four motors is one of the most significant commercial cargo drones projects to reach the heavens. The helicopter manufacturer produced the APT 70 for NASA’s drone integration program, officially called the Operationalization demonstration and Systems Integration activity. In that effort, it meant to describe commercial drone targets in public airspace, with their autonomous behavior exceeding an operator’s line of sight.
But Bell believes it’s found a sweet spot with this configuration in terms of payload, range, and usability that will appeal to a vast selection of customers.
“When most people think of cargo drones they imagine these small and cute little things,” says Scott Drennan, Bell’s vice president in charge of engineering innovation, which includes drone development as well as its larger air taxi initiative. “But when you get the payloads that most companies actually find useful, it gets to be a much larger aircraft.”
The big drone is a successor to a smaller demonstrator, the APT 20, that Bell has been flying for years. Though both aircraft flew as remotely piloted systems, their performance was always augmented with independent functionality, including the capability for the aircraft to remain stable and in its current flight mode should the pilot release the controls. Now the APT 70 can take off, the transition to horizontal flight, fly to a string of waypoints, return to its origin point, and land entirely on its own.
The APT 70 has also shown itself competent in a set of conditions. On Monday, it operated amid 15-knot winds with 19-knot gusts. When the wind is a part, the aircraft automatically locates itself at liftoff, so the wind flows along the length of the wings instead of directly into a wide, flat, sail-like surface, decreasing buffeting and drift. It then pivots into the wind for the turn to horizontal flight, allowing more airflow nearby the wings.
It reverses that process for landing. Even though it has necessary proximity sensors to recognize restrictions and define its distance from the ground, it does yet carry the see-and-avoid technology which will be required for UAVs to function in public airspace. That, together with evolving commercially-approved backup systems, is next for the program. Bell intends to start beyond-visual-line-of sight tests next year, on the path to beginning support that is commercial in the early 2020s.
As for future cargo variants, the organization says the system is scalable well past the 70-pound capacity currently flying, and it thus has even bigger things in mind. The APT 880 will follow APT 70 that will haul 880 pounds of cargo around the skies, for some genuinely Texas-sized package delivery.