Bell and NASA perform autonomous drone test flight in controlled airspace

Bell, the helicopter manufacturer that is part of Textron and has previously announced its engagement in the urban air mobility market, flew its APT 70 drone beyond visual line-of-sight in the Class B airspace around Forth Worth, TX. The Autonomous Pod Transport (APT) 70 is a VTOL drone built for delivery in military and medical missions or commercial use. It can fly 35 miles (56km) at 110kts while carrying a payload of up to 70lbs (31kg).

The demonstration flight was a joint effort with NASA, as part of its Systems Integration and Operationalization program, which looks at integration of unmanned aircraft systems in different environments. The pre-programmed, autonomous mission took the APT 70 over an urban environment while transitioning in and out of Class B airspace. Class B airspace contains all activities from the surface to 10,000ft above sea level. The aircraft is equipped to test Detect and Avoid and Command and Control technologies for use in controlled and uncontrolled airspace. The team will use the data to support the FAA in developing certification guidelines.

Photo Credit: Bell

The drone flew a pre-programmed 10-mile circuit from Bell’s Floyd Carlson airfield in Forth Worth. It took off vertically, and rotated to horizontal flight at around 500ft above ground. Visual observers were present along the route to provide the pilot with recommendations for adjustments should they have been needed. Bell worked with Xwing, a provider of autonomous flight technology, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA). Xwing uses radars, ADS-B and a visual system with onboard processing. CASA’s tools provide local weather risk awareness.

This successful demonstration highlights the great potential for the APT 70 to complete complex missions for businesses and healthcare providers. With teammates like NASA, we can carve a path forward for future commercial operations to solve the cargo and goods transportation challenges our world currently faces.
– Michael Thacker, executive vice president, Innovation and Commercial Business of Bell

NASA is excited to partner with Bell to help accelerate routine UAS operations into the national airspace with this successful flight demo. Our efforts with Bell and our other SIO industry partners will help commercial UAS move closer towards certification to make missions like this transport flight a common event.
– Mauricio Rivas, UAS integration in the NAS project manager at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center

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