Bell Textron this week demonstrated its Autonomous Pod Transport 70 (APT 70) vehicle as part of NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the National Airspace System program. The flight on September 28 was made using detect-and-avoid (DAA) hardware and software developed by autonomous technology specialist Xwing, which is separately advancing plans to certify a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan aircraft for unmanned operations.
Xwing’s DAA system consists of cameras, radars, and satellite-based automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, with these situational awareness and positioning inputs being integrated by the California-based company’s software. The technology can be used by a ground-based remote pilot or be coupled with an aircraft’s flight-control system to provide automated collision avoidance.
The APT 70 flight, which was conducted in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, marked the first time Bell’s new unmanned vehicle was able to fly in controlled airspace without a pilot. According to Bell and Xwing, a significant portion of the flight was made in Class B airspace, which surrounds major airports and requires authorization and coordination with air traffic control.
The flight took off from Bell's Floyd Carson airfield and flew a 10-mile circuit along the Trinity River at an altitude of 500 feet. According to Bell, the route included a road crossing and transition in and out of Class B airspace. Communication between the ground station and the aircraft was maintained through a redundant datalink.
The Bell and Xwing teams have been working together for two years, and they have previously tested the DAA technology on one of the U.S. manufacturer’s helicopters. Over the summer they transitioned to the APT 70, which has now made several flights, including one during the last week of September to demonstrate full integration for the purposes of the NASA program.
"This successful demonstration highlights the great potential for the APT 70 to complete complex missions for businesses and healthcare providers," said Michael Thacker, Bell's executive vice president for Innovation and Commercial Business.
“The final flight was the first that involved going into Class B airspace and getting authorization from air traffic control,” Xwing chief technology officer Maxime Gariel told FutureFlight. “There was plenty of traffic coming close [to the APT 70].”
Bell’s APT 70 is intended to be used for autonomous operations, such as medical deliveries, third-party logistics, offshore support, and humanitarian relief. The helicopter manufacturer, which is also working on a passenger-carrying eVTOL called Nexus, intends to develop a family of freight-carrying unmanned APT aircraft with a payload eventually as high as 1,000 pounds. The APT 70 can carry 70 pounds up to around 35 miles at speeds of around 125 mph.
Meanwhile, Xwing says it is on track to start freight operations in its modified Grand Caravan aircraft by the end of 2020. The company plans to run a commercial operation on a trial basis for about a year to prove the DAA system as part of its complete Autoflight system, which will also include flight controls.
The Grand Caravan has a payload of 4,000 pounds, and Xwing intends to operate on sectors of between 100 and 500 miles. The company indicated that it may soon announce a launch customer for its trial cargo operations.
“We want to unlock the potential for BVLOS [beyond visual line of sight] flight,” explained Gariel. He said that by running its own flight trials to demonstrate the technology’s performance under different flight conditions, Xwing aims to solve the “chicken and egg” problem in which early adopters are reluctant to take a risk without first seeing evidence that the system will work in real-world conditions.
Initially, Xwing’s system will be used for safety enhancement to improve situational awareness for the Grand Caravan, which will still use its standard avionics suite and have a pilot on board. This gradual approach makes it easier to get FAA approval for the flight trials, and the data gathered will support the certification of the system.
In August, Xwing reported that it had already made more than 70 pilotless takeoffs and landings in the converted Grand Caravan. Subject to FAA approval, the company hopes to begin autonomous operations in early 2022, although these will initially be conducted with an operator on the ground, mainly to handle interactions with air traffic controllers.
The company claims that autonomous flight can resolve what it says is still a growing pilot shortage, while also increasing the productivity of aircraft operators by a factor of three, potentially resulting in cost savings of 20 to 30 percent.
NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems flights in the National Airspace System program started in 2018 when the agency began selecting partners to test the enabling technology. Its goal is to support the safety case for routine autonomous flights for commercial aircraft operations.
The APT 70 trial flights were also supported by the University of Massachusetts Amherst's Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of Atmosphere, which developed an intuitive, integrated display to provide remote pilots with local weather risk awareness and route-based weather alerts.