By Melissa Repko
The Dallas Morning News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) “Bell” is one of several aerospace manufacturers partnering with ride-hailing giant Uber to develop on-demand urban air taxis. Can someone say The Jetsons?
The futuristic aircraft that Bell is developing looks nothing like what made the Fort Worth-based helicopter maker famous.
The nearly 83-year-old aerospace and defense company is designing an air taxi that’ll give commuters a new way to travel across crowded cities. And it’s testing sophisticated drones that could rush blood to a hospital, drop off water or supplies in areas hit by natural disasters, and deliver customers’ purchases by air instead of truck.
It’s all part of an effort to shake up Bell’s image and push the company toward new markets and innovative ideas.
The company has dropped “Helicopter” from its name, unveiled a new logo and made appearances at giant tech conventions like CES and South by Southwest. It created a dedicated innovation team that’s focused on business projects that are five, 10 or 15 years into the future. And it’s one of several aerospace manufacturers partnering with ride-hailing giant Uber to develop on-demand urban air taxis.
Bell president and CEO Mitch Snyder said the company’s new name symbolizes its shift toward bigger thinking.
“If you’re going to dream big into the future of what you want to be, you don’t want to have a modifier like a helicopter on your name,” he said. “I wanted that to come off the name and allow us to become anything we want to be.”
Projects like air taxis bring new business opportunities, but they’re also an edgier bet for a company that’s relied on military contracts as its bread and butter. About two-thirds of Bell’s revenue comes from military-related work. The other third comes from commercial business, such as private helicopters used by law enforcement or owned by VIPs.
Bell’s annual revenue has declined in recent years, after peaking in 2013 at about $4.5 billion. Between 2013 and 2017, annual revenue dropped by about 26 percent to $3.3 billion in 2017.
Snyder attributed the falloff to reductions in U.S. defense spending, a decrease in V-22 Osprey production and a downturn in the oil and gas market. He said Bell will continue to invest in research and development for its commercial and military sides, as it aims to be a “balanced business.”
Reclaiming innovative roots
The company was founded by Larry Bell in Buffalo, N.Y., as Bell Aircraft Corp. It claims many “firsts” in aviation — among them, the first to break the sound barrier, certify a commercial helicopter and pioneer the tiltrotor aircraft.
It’s best-known for the aircraft that used to be part of its name: the helicopter. It has delivered more than 35,000 aircraft to military and commercial customers across the world.
Today, Bell has about 7,400 employees, with the majority of them — 4,400 — based in North Texas. It has plants in Fort Worth, Amarillo, Mirabel, Canada and Chihuahua, Mexico, and supply and service centers in Europe, Canada and Singapore. It’s a subsidiary of Rhode Island-based Textron, a publicly-traded company that includes aerospace, defense, specialized vehicle and turf care brands.
When Snyder became CEO in October 2015, one of his first moves was starting an innovation team.
“We started saying, ‘Could we reach other customers?'” said Scott Drennan, vice president of innovation at Bell. And he said the team began thinking with the mindset of a technology company instead of a helicopter manufacturer.
The company dropped the word “helicopter” from its name in early 2018. It debuted a new logo featuring a shield, to represent safety and defense, and a dragonfly, one of the most sophisticated flying creatures.
And Bell, usually at home at air or helicopter shows, also sought out new consumer audiences at South by Southwest and CES as a way to get out its name and recruit talent.
The innovation team has grown from 25 people to 125. It’s expected to grow to 175 by the end of this year, Drennan said. It acts as an in-house incubator, working on ideas that may later be pushed out to the entire company.
So far, it has unveiled two major aircraft: an urban air taxi called Bell Nexus and the Autonomous Pod Transport, or APT, an unmanned aerial vehicle or commercial-grade drone that can carry cargo or packages.
Drennan said Bell aims to get the APT to market in the early 2020s and the Bell Nexus to market in the mid-2020s.
One of Bell’s most high-profile projects is the Bell Nexus. This month, Bell announced the aircraft’s name and showed off a prototype at CES in Las Vegas, the same place it showed off an earlier design of the air taxi a year ago. The show drew a crowd of techies, startups and corporate executives who could sit inside the prototype and take flight through virtual reality.
Bell is one of several companies developing aircraft for Uber Air, a new service that Uber aims to offer starting in 2023. Uber chose Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles as the first U.S. cities for the new service.
Mark Moore, a former NASA engineer who now leads Uber’s aviation division, said the Bell Nexus prototype shows that “the day when Uber riders will be able to push a button and take a flight is closer than you think.”
The aircraft will be powered by a hybrid-electric propulsion system and will include six tilting ducted fans near the wings.
Bell is leading the design and production of its vertical takeoff and lift systems. It’s collaborating with aviation partners with other expertise, such as EPS for its energy storage system and Thales for its flight control computer hardware and software.
It has yet to take flight, but different components are in testing, Drennan said.
Bell has traditionally been an original equipment manufacturer that makes helicopters. But he said the company is looking at ways its business model may change in the future: Will Bell sell a fleet of air taxis to Uber and other transportation companies? Should it fly its own fleet of air taxis, too?
Drennan said Bell also sees retailers as potential customers for air taxis. For example, a brick-and-mortar store or distribution center for a major retailer could fly an item from one store to another in minutes to keep a customer from leaving a store and buying it online.
New tech outlets
With the air taxi, Bell is competing in a crowded field with an eclectic mix of companies, including aerospace competitor Airbus, Google co-founder Larry Page-backed Kitty Hawk and Joby Aviation, founded by an entrepreneur who made his money on bendable tripods and other camera accessories. Boeing acquired Aurora Flight Sciences, an unmanned-aerial-vehicle company that’s developing an air taxi.
Michael Blades, a research director in aerospace, defense and security for consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, said it seems nearly every major aviation company is talking about urban air mobility as a way to drive growth.
“You are not going to see 10, 15, 20 percent growth in military spending,” he said. “They have to figure out other areas where they can use their technology.”
And it will face other significant hurdles, he said: Getting certification for the aircraft. Ramping up manufacturing. Relying on build-out of transit hubs for takeoff and landing and development of an air traffic control organization to regulate the lower-altitude skies. And winning the trust of the public.
Blades said he’s skeptical of the Uber and Bell timetable for taking flight not because of the technology, but because of regulatory hurdles. Even drone flight, he said, is still heavily restricted.
“If you can’t figure out [rules for] how to deliver a 5-pound package with a small drone, how are you going to figure out how to deliver a 200-pound person through cities and over buildings?” he said.