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Bell Nexus Air Taxi Could Make Self-Driving Planes A Reality By 2023

Written by Timothy Werth

Self-driving cars have been cruising their way onto the market for the last few years. But would you ever have the nerve to get in a self-driving plane? You might just get your chance by the mid-2020s.

Uber Elevate partner Bell recently introduced its electric autonomous vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) aircraft at the Consumer Electronics Show. Held every January in Las Vegas, the Consumer Electronics Show is the launching pad for the latest, and hottest, electronics to come on the market in the next year.

Bell definitely delivered with its Bell Nexus. The Nexus, dubbed an autonomous air taxi, will be part of the Uber Elevate initiative. Bell president and CEO Mitch Snyder says Uber Elevate plans to launch its VTOL aircraft in Los Angeles and Dallas by the mid-2020s.

The Bell Nexus holds four passengers and resembles both a drone and a V-22 Osprey, which is also a Bell product.

“The aircraft is designed to be fully automated,” said Snyder. “Once the regulatory authorities and community accept that it’s ok to not have a pilot, then it will be a five-passenger vehicle.”

Bell also included a flight simulator at CES to show just how the average person could operate the Bell Nexus without a pilot. Snyder said they wanted to see what was intuitive for people to learn how to fly the air taxi.

Commercial helicopter sales reached $5 billion in 2017. The goal, says Snyder, is to make the Bell Nexus safe, quiet, and affordable.

“We’re still working with Uber to determine the cost of traveling in the vehicle but it’s going to be more affordable than you think,” Snyder said.

So how does it work?

The Bell Nexus uses a hybrid-electric propulsion system, gas turbine engine, and electric rotors. It also features six 8-foot tilting ducted fans that give the air taxi the ability to transition from vertical liftoff to horizontal flight. The Nexus can also land on existing helipads.

If you’re not sure you’d take a ride in the Nexus, you’ve got time to think about it. Bell says the Nexus on display at the CES is a non-flying mockup. The real air taxis is still in production at Bell headquarters in Texas and will start flight testing in 2023.

Bell representatives say the Nexus weighs up to 6,500 pounds and can fly 150 miles an hour.

What do these numbers mean for the aviation industry? Unlike self-driving cars, which could threaten the jobs of taxi drivers, commercial aviation is currently in the middle of a global pilot shortage.

Just like how drones help engineers and architects tackle construction tasks, these autonomous air taxis could potentially give the aviation industry a leg up. Autonomous planes could also transport goods, not just people, if the technology is successful.

For instance, there are 500,000 refrigerated trailers operating in the U.S. right now. But the short transportation time that air cargo provides actually reduces the risk of damaging products.

Still, before self-driving planes can fill the gap in any industry the public needs to become more comfortable with the idea. According to Forbes, younger generations are more comfortable flying without a pilot than older generations. And those who are familiar with autonomous technology are more comfortable than those who aren’t.

“Defining and developing urban air mobility is a complex undertaking, requiring collaboration across industries, regulatory agencies, and other communities of interest,” said Snyder. “Although there is still a lot of work to be done, the future is real, it’s possible, and it’s coming soon.”

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Timothy Werth