Bell Announces Step Forward For Autonomous Flight Operations


Bell Textron announced today (Feb. 2) its Autonomous Pod Transport (APT) has successfully demonstrated a ground-based Detect and Avoid (DAA) flight. The test was part of Bell’s NASA Systems Integration and Operationalization (SIO) project to demonstrate the unmanned aircraft’s systems integration with ground radar and its ability to meet requirements for navigating airspace and avoiding traffic, “a critical component needed for future Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) vehicles,” according to Bell’s announcement.

The demonstration hinged on proving capability to complete beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) missions in complex airspace. The APT’s DAA technology is designed to monitor airspace for “natural intruders” and tests included interfacing with a commercial Bell 429 helicopter equipped with Bell’s QuantiFLY communication unit. QuantiFLY is driven by the Truth Data flight data monitoring system, described as a “low-cost, lightweight, and fully automatic flight data monitoring (FDM) solution.” It was installed on the Bell 429 to record telemetry data.

Tests were flown in “complex” airspace within the AllianceTexas Mobility Innovation Zone (MIZ) and radar tracked manned and unmanned aircraft systems. The MIZ enables partner organizations to test, scale and commercialize emerging technologies in air and surface mobility, according to Bell.

Matt Holvey, Bell’s Director of Intelligent Systems, said, “Radar monitoring, whether airborne or ground-based, may become an important part of drone delivery, air taxi services and other aspects of the ever-expanding AAM ecosystem.”

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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  1. Ok, I already tried begging Avweb to not just copy/pasting these rosy sounding but ultimately meaningless UAV press releases, to no avail. Like all these other PR-only “events”, I am calling out this “news”:
    “The demonstration hinged on proving capability to complete beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) missions in complex airspace”.
    This flight’s “complex airspace” started at the Mobility Innovation Zone Flight Test Center. Which if you do some digging is actually just a trailer and a windsock located at the northwest corner of the Texas Motor Speedway (link to video below). Like most NASCAR tracks, they have a set of helipads to shuttle VIPs that are unused 350 days of the year, and you’ve got to hand it to Perot Jr. to hype this unused cement into a “Fight Test Center” likely to be the next White Sands. It sure looks like a lot of journalists are taking the bait.

    The flight continued about 4 nm NNE to the SW corner of the Pecan Square planned community which is still under construction. Have a look at the map, there is absolutely nothing between these two points – not even a cow. It stayed under 300 ft the whole time.

    I’ll let you decide if this flight was “complex airspace” – According to the press release, the flight went through Class D and Class G. Technically that’s correct – the flight was within the KAFW Class D. For about the first 100 yards. This tiny sliver of Class D in the NE is not in the flight path for KAFW’s 16/34 runways. KAFD isn’t exactly O’Hare – it has 21 planes based there but it’s hard to imagine any of them being under three hundred feet NE of the field. Ninety five percent of the flight was in Class G. This is the first time I have ever heard anyone say G was complex airspace. I can’t imagine how this flight from nowhere to nowhere could be considered a proof of concept of DAA in complex airspace.

    Based reports on previous “tests” their lauded “radar tracking” appears to be using ADS-B info fed in Bell’s QuantiFLY box which is an existing commercial product that’s just a cellular modem to offload telemetry data that Bell has been marketing as a way to track potential maintenance needs or snoop if your corporate helo pilot was flying like an idiot. A look at NASA’s Systems Integration and Operationalization past project updates seems to suggest today’s trumpeted “milestones” were accomplished almost a year ago. This seems more like a Bell attempt to sell their $7k QuantiFLY box and justify their government funding since according to NASA’s SIO slide deck they are around 2 years behind schedule.

    I am not saying NASA’s SIO is not important. It is – have a read, it’s interesting. I’m not saying they are not getting towards their stated goal. Maybe they are. What I am saying is maybe this is a non-event and maybe Avweb which we all love and respect should take these press releases with more than a grain of salt.
    Anyway, have a look at AllianceTexas’ videos of the “Test Center” and read the Bell press release, the NASA SIO site, and look at the Google Map (33.0495, -97.29329), and judge for yourself if any of this seems like we just landed on the moon…

    • Its NOT some deserted area there, it’s actually better described as a boomtown. Also, a lot of private pilots do fly low in that area to avoid dealing with all the airports and other airspace in that corner of the metroplex.

  2. Article didn’t give any usefull info about the vehicle either. Just a Pic of something that could be a glorified box kite.

    Please include cool fpv videos of the box kite doing its thing. Otherwise it’s just a box kite.