Uber in the Air? Concept Taxi Looks Skyward

A front view of Bell's new concept air taxi helicopter on display at CES 2018. (Trevor Ballantyne/BUNS).

By Trevor Ballantyne
BU News Service

Will we soon have Uber in the air? Speaking in front of the sleek silver body of a concept helicopter taxi at CES, Bell’s director of innovation Scott Drennen cited successful air taxi models developed by Uber and explained that his company believes air taxis will become an increasingly popular mode of transportation by the mid 2020’s.

The helicopter cabin looks and feels like a luxury car and features onboard computers and monitors that will be connected via the Internet of Things. “We’re going to connect you from point a to point b but you are also going to be connected on your ride.” Passengers will be able to communicate with each other and connect to the internet, features that Drennen said will make riding in the helicopter a more relaxing and enjoyable experience. It will also employ a hybrid electric propulsion system that the company has yet to unveil. Initially, the helicopter will be piloted by a human, but as passengers become more comfortable with autonomous technology Bell plans to introduce the technology into its autonomous air taxi.

Bell is betting that increasing urban populations and accompanying traffic congestion that comes with it will make air taxis a more attractive option for city commuters. Drennan explained that cities will begin to build sites for the air taxis to take off and land on called “vertiports.” “There are vertiports that will be constructed around cities maybe up to hundreds per city,” Drennan explained, “the vertiport can be an amenity for your city. It can be an amenity for your condominium building.”

Drennen said Bell’s move into the air taxi industry is an important one that suggests the company is no longer only focused primarily on serving its traditional military and wealthy clients. “This vehicle is going to reach the masses.” In order to accomplish this, Bell will need to find ways to drive down the cost of flying the aircraft. “Cost is one of the biggest challenges, but in order to bring it to bear on the masses it needs to come down,” Drennen said. Taking off and landing vertically requires a tremendous amount of power, but Drennen sees an electrified propulsion system as part of the answer to that challenge as the company seeks to lower the aircraft’s direct operating costs “and the way it will come down is lower direct operating costs.”

The helicopter company has long been a leading innovator in the aircraft industry. Bell’s X1 plane was the first aircraft to break the sound barrier and the company was the first to develop a jet-pack. “We have traditionally been a company that has changed the way the world flies,” Drennen said, “and this is just another example of that.”

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