When it comes to self-flying drones capable of delivering packages, Amazon isn’t the only game in town.
Today Bell reported that it’s begun putting its Autonomous Pod Transport 70, or APT 70, through test flights at a facility near its headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. The tests are being conducted under an experimental type certificate through the remainder of the year, Bell said in a news release.
“We are excited to reach this milestone, and look forward to continuing to advance this technology for our customers,” said Scott Drennan, Bell’s vice president for innovation.
The APT 70 is designed for autonomous deliveries of payloads ranging from commercial packages to medical supplies, with a baseline payload capacity of 70 pounds and a top speed of more than 100 mph. It’s optimized for rapid deployment, quick reconfiguration and fast battery swap and recharge.
Bell’s video shows the four-rotor craft transitioning from vertical takeoff to horizontal flight by doing a 90-degree turn in the air. That’s similar to the latest iteration of Amazon’s drone, which does a vertical-to-horizontal switch by changing the orientation of its rotor-equipped wing assembly.
At Amazon’s re:MARS conference in June, Worldwide Consumer CEO Jeff Wilke said “you’re going to see this new drone delivering packages to customers in months.”
Bell’s schedule for the APT 70 isn’t quite as ambitious: It plans to demonstrate a simulated commercial mission in the national airspace system, including operations beyond visual line of sight, sometime in mid-2020. The demonstration will be conducted under the auspices of the NASA Systems Integration and Operationalization program.
Bell, a subsidiary of Textron, was formerly known as Bell Helicopter but has branched out into other types of flying machines. It’s collaborating with Yamato, a Japanese transportation logistics company, to adapt the APT 70 for Yamato’s package-handling system. The Bell-Yamato system is already in its demonstration phase and is expected to go commercial in the early 2020s.
The APT 70 is just one of Bell’s offerings in the market for electric-powered, vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, better known as eVTOL aircraft. Bell is partnering with Uber on a hybrid eVTOL that can serve as an air taxi. In January, Bell showed off the design for its Nexus five-seater and said the craft could be in the air by 2023.
For what it’s worth, a Boeing subsidiary called Aurora Flight Sciences is also partnering with Uber on an air-taxi offering. A prototype known as the Passenger Air Vehicle, or PAV, had its first test flight in January. In addition to the PAV, Boeing is working on a package-carrying drone called the Cargo Air Vehicle, or CAV.