Bell has launched an aerospace operating system that it believes will solve the digital backbone need of urban air mobility, and place it firmly in competition with other potential on-demand software providers, such as Uber and Blade.
Built in collaboration with Microsoft, the system, known as Bell AerOS, consists to two main elements: a booking engine to allow members of the public to request a ride in an eVTOL, and a comprehensive fleet management system.
It’s a leap into new territory for the storied airframe manufacturer, which had been building helicopters for more than 70 years before a recent refocus on innovation and the emerging urban air mobility market led to it rebranding and dropping the “Helicopter” part of its name.
“I have basically taken everything as far as any barriers away from my team,” Bell CEO and president Mitch Snyder told journalists when announcing the move. “A lot of times you’ll say, ‘You’re an aircraft manufacturer . . . there’s bounds to where you can go,’ and I have not done that with this team. I’ve said, ‘Open it up look at every possible aspect to deploying [urban air mobility]. . . . Look at all aspects that Bell can be a player in or partner in to provide that service.”
AerOS uses an artificial intelligence master scheduling engine and goal-seeking optimization algorithms to predict demand and place aircraft accordingly, and then allocate which of a fleet of potentially hundreds or thousands of aircraft respond to a demand signal — someone booking a Nexus ride, or needing a package delivery from a drone.
Among the considerations for what vehicle is sent where would be battery management. To maximize the health and life of aircraft batteries, deeper discharges from longer journeys, for example, would be spread across the fleet.
Intelligent use of a fleet would also consider maintenance requirements, ensuring aircraft hit scheduled maintenance at different times. And with a wealth of aircraft health and usage data available to it, the ability to perform predictive maintenance in quieter periods will also be enhanced.
“All of that is going to turn into, ‘this is the sweet spot math for when vehicles one at a time need to go in and go out of maintenance,’” said Matt Holvey, manager of intelligent systems at Bell.
The system would also be the first line of defence in airspace deconfliction, ensuring aircraft are not flying in the same space at the same time.
Holvey said today’s artificial intelligence tools and optimization algorithms are best equipped to efficiently manage fleets, enhance safety and drive down costs.
“So it seemed like a no-brainer to us that this needs to be a service that Bell provides,” he said. “All-in-one as a package deal with our mobility as a service.”
Bell plans to offer AerOS as an open and flexible system, designed to work with any aircraft from any manufacturer. The customers could be public entities — such as municipalities — or private companies.
“It can be flexible, because it needs to meet the needs of the user,” said Holvey. “And if the user says, ‘I’m going to have a mixed fleet,’ that’s what it needs to be able to do. The other aircraft need to come to the table with, ‘This is how it’s going to work and make sure that the safety and reliability of our aircraft match that of Bell’s’ — but the digital backbone behind that can be run by private sectors [or] by public organizations, [and] Bell can be operating, using mobility as a service. We could be the owner/operator commanding the software; the software could be licensed to third parties to come in and use.”
In open competition
Bell is one of five “aircraft partners” in the Uber Elevate Network — perhaps the most high-profile attempt to create an urban air mobility network. And despite the apparent overlap between AerOS and the service Uber will aim to provide through Uber Air, Drennan said the relationship between the two companies was unaffected by its launch.
“Uber has what they have and we don’t want to take it away from them,” he said. “But there are other customers that don’t have those opportunities and we’d like to make sure we have a system that can provide the service.”
Holvey said the flexibility of Bell’s offering had the potential to open new doors.
“There are a lot of customers in the ODM [on demand mobility] space,” he said. “What we are architecting is this modular, micro-service approach that resides in the cloud, that if you need a booking agent, we’ve got that; if you need an open data exchange and infrastructure on the cloud to provide that, that’s at the core of what we do; but if you don’t need the booking engine, but you need to interface an ERP [enterprise resource planning] system like Oracle and SRP [system resource planning], we’ll plug right in.”
While the system would not likely be in service until later this decade, Holvey said the symbiotic nature of the air vehicle and digital system require a concurrent development. Plus, Bell want to ensure word gets out that there is more than one option in terms of service providers.
“We want to get this out there today because we want the public to know there are other options,” said Holvey. “And it’ll be up to the public to decide if this is the better option. It’ll definitely be the most flexible for them.”
The system will be demonstrated at CES 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada, in the form of a “Bell City.” Two 20-foot-by-30-foot downtown cityscapes are on Bell’s booth at the consumer show, each filled with buildings of various heights, representing airports, office towers, parking garages and shops. A fleet of five drones (representing Bell’s Nexus) is working above each city, and attendees can “book” trips for these drones between different locations in the cities using one of 12 tablets at the booth.
Each tablet will showcase the potential for Bell AerOS, with access to the booking mechanism (a familiar-looking experience that allows you to choose your location, destination, and number of passengers), while also offering a glimpse at the fleet management system. The latter shows the location of each drone, active flights, fleet utilization, maintenance status, and battery charge of any given aircraft.
Keeping the experience dynamic, occasional weather events, such as thunderstorms, will temporarily ground the fleet, while projections on the display show a working city, complete with moving pedestrians, and city noises — and smells.
The aim is to not only illustrate the potential of AerOS, but to give attendees a feel for what it might be like to live in the smart city of the future.
“The reason we’re pushing so hard at the Consumer Electric Show this time is to show you that it’s an entire ecosystem,” said Snyder. “We can go make a vehicle fly, but if you don’t have the mobility centers [vertiports] out there, [if] you don’t have the whole system set up, the booking agents, who’s going to own the vehicles, how’s the money going to flow, [if] you don’t have the accessibility if the centers are only in certain areas where the people can get to them, [it’s not going to work]. That’s what we want to show you is you’ve got to have a smart city, and it has to be all thought out, all the way through.”
If urban mobility systems are to work, Bell executive VP of technology and innovation Michael Thacker said they also have to be implemented at the right scale. “You’re talking hundreds to thousands in a community to be able to get the kind of operations that would actually make a difference in the lives of the people in those cities,” he said. “So the community involvement piece and the infrastructure side of it is a non-trivial portion of it as well.”
Thacker said Bell’s conversations with the regulator and communities “are all progressing,” and that the regulatory side of things, particularly in regards to the vehicle “is actually pretty well advanced.”