Bell Taps Thales to Provide On-Demand VTOL Flight Controls

By Nick Zazulia | October 23, 2018
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A simulator for Bell’s air taxi concept. Photo courtesy of Bell

Thales will develop flight control systems for Bell’s vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) aircraft, the two companies said Tuesday.

Bell has said the aircraft, which is to be used for on-demand urban mobility in partnership with Uber, will initially require a pilot — with many systems still automated — before later transitioning into a fully autonomous vehicle. A Bell spokesman said by email that Thales is being brought in to collaborate on both versions of the flight control systems.

“We continue to expand our team and capabilities for our [on-demand mobility] aircraft to bring the most advanced technology available and new vertical lift solutions to the market,” said Bell Vice President of Innovation Scott Drennan. “Our collaboration with Thales is intended to ensure a state-of-the-art, affordable flight controls system that will be designed to meet the needs of future piloted and fully autonomous on-demand mobility vehicles.”

As Bell continues to flesh out the network for its urban mobility vision, partners have been locked in for different components of the aircraft. Thales has experience in both avionics and air traffic management, a major hurdle that urban mobility hopefuls like Bell and Uber must eventually overcome. Pressed on whether Thales’ air traffic management background will play a role in the partnership, a Bell representative said, “There are many variables that go into our collaboration with Thales and other teammates, but we share the same vision for on-demand mobility.”

Uber and Bell’s latest projections feature the lofty goals of multi-city testing by 2020 and operations three years after that, with an ultimate scale of up to 1,000 takeoffs per hour from each skyport. That would almost certainly require changes in FAA regulation regarding minimum separation of aircraft. While trying to simultaneously tackle the regulatory and technological side ahead of the aggressive deadline the companies set themselves, most of the tech focus has been on the battery component and autonomy for the proposed electric or hybrid-electric vehicle. This is the first news on flight controls, adding Thales to a team that includes Bell, EmbraerX, Safran and Garmin.

“Thales is playing a leading role in shaping the autonomous world,” said Michael Grenier, Thales vice president for avionics in Canada. “We are delighted to partner with Bell and contribute to the future of on-demand mobility.”

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