Discover Bell, Textron Inc.’s method for redefining medical missions and exploring the many questions around unmanned aircraft vehicles.

A responsive helicopter airlifting patients from an accident site to a hospital restores crucial moments to the golden hour of trauma, the critical period where immediate treatment is quite literally a life or death matter. But there are other pivotal mobility moments that can save time and ultimately a life. For the movement of vital organs, blood bags and other medical materials, time matters. If we had a vertical lift solution that could carry this precious cargo, zip over to another facility or hospital and reduce cost and time, what a revolution that would be. As always, Bell is on the mission.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) vehicles are not new technology, but their capabilities grow more unique and dynamic every day. Jumping into this new vertical lift territory, Bell’s Technology and Innovation team is actively developing and testing our own vehicles to modernize logistics. From the military to offshore operations support, we’re already exploring opportunities for our Autonomous Pod Transport (APT) and its family of eVTOL aircraft. But we’ve decided to start with a special mission and a phenomenal team. Last year, NASA and Bell announced a cooperative agreement for a beyond-visual line of site UAS flight demonstration in 2020. My team elected to showcase our 300-pound Autonomous Pod Transport 70 (APT 70) by executing a medical support mission. APT 70 will complete the mission beyond the line of sight, transitioning in and out of one of the business Class B airspace in the U.S. – not your typical drone flight. As project lead, I plan to harness the speed and agility of unmanned aircraft to prove that APT 70 is the solution for speedy transport of medical goods. And I plan to do it by diving into the details.

With everything Bell does, we always begin with safety. Any commercialized aerial object will have to fly over people, roads and communities while also navigating air space already occupied by other aircraft. Soaring above the communities and cities where daily life occurs – what we’ve dubbed the “urban canyon” – comes with many details to discuss. Since Bell continuously builds vertical lift products that safely enter the urban canyon for a variety of objectives, testing for safety is our expertise. We’ll start by using rural and unoccupied spaces for test flights before moving operations over more inhabited regions. In large metropolitan areas, city chaos is not limited to ground activity. While airspace is frequently filled with activity, both air traffic and city radio frequency communications add another challenge to constant ground and air traffic contact. Keeping vehicles on a mission path demands a command and control technology that can easily signal to a vehicle and vice versa. In our upcoming demonstration, we will exhibit this command and control exchange between APT 70 and our teams. Without a pilot to detect and avoid surrounding traffic, we’re exploring technology to mimic this critical task as well.

We’re not afraid to jump into this new world of technology possibilities – in fact, we’re excited. However, our APT 70 and our other eVTOL aircraft will only thrive if they operate in the correct parameters. Close coordination with government agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, keeps us updated on current and upcoming regulations and the right path we need to follow to safely and proactively meet these needs. Preparing for and completing our NASA demonstration will pave the way for more autonomous vehicle production, more APT 70s tackling new challenges and redefining logistics to fit a rapidly growing world. Through testing, technology exploration and collaboration with the right stakeholders, our team at Bell is setting the framework for a new wave of missions that will improve quality of life, eliminate logistics pain points and add minutes back on the clock when they matter the most.

Jennifer Andrews
Engineer IV, Innovation Team at Bell Helicopter

“Expert Insight” is the independent views and opinions of the submitting named author of this article.

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