The Smithsonian Institution has for 175 years been helping people understand the past. On November 20, the Smithsonian will open an exhibit to help people imagine the future.
In the Arts & Industries Building on the National Mall, curators have assembled 150 objects, displays, and works of art in an exhibit called “Futures” that envisions what the world could look like years or decades hence. Yet one of those objects also brings visitors face to face with now. The Bell NEXUS, an electric-powered, tilt-rotor air taxi prototype, represents one of the most active areas of research and development in aviation today. It has not flown, but it can fly—it is a real Bell prototype—and it marks the advent of a new type of aircraft that will change how people and goods move around the country.
“You really can’t look at the future without including a flying car,” says Ashley Molese, the exhibit curator, though the NEXUS does not fit the traditional notion of a car that also happens to fly. You’ll never find the NEXUS on a roadway; it was built for the sky. “People half expect the little Jetson’s saucer with the glass bubble on top,” says Molese, “but when people see it, it’s going to stop them dead in their tracks. The scale is so massive. It takes up half of one of our exhibit halls.”
Powered by electric engines driving six ducted fans that lift the aircraft vertically and pitch forward for horizontal thrust, the NEXUS has a flight profile similar to Bell’s famous V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, which has been in service with the U.S. military for almost 15 years. This new civilian tiltrotor is smaller—with about a 40-foot square footprint and an eight-foot wingspan—quieter, and comfortably seats a pilot and four passengers, as opposed to the Osprey’s 24 not-all-that-comfortable troops.
The concept for the Futures exhibit is based on the early World’s Fairs that showcased current technologies to give glimpses of the future. “We think of the Arts & Industries Building as a Crystal Palace in brick and mortar,” says Molese. “You see incredible prototypes sitting on marble floors that were in the original building when it opened in 1881. These trusses overhead and ornate ironwork mezzanines that root you in a different time provide a really beautiful juxtaposition.”
The recent growth in the number of designs for eVTOLs (electric-powered, vertical-takeoff and -landing vehicles) has been remarkable, according to Christine DeJong, the director of Global Innovation and Policy at the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. The GAMA Electric Propulsion & Innovation Committee was formed in 2015, says DeJong, with 11 companies participating. “Today there are 115,” she says, including not just airframe manufacturers but engine builders and other suppliers. “We’re anticipating a handful to a dozen [of these designs] getting certified by the FAA within this decade.”
What happens next?
“It’s going to give people options,” says DeJong. Most eVTOL manufacturers imagine their products as air taxis that will use ride-sharing apps to overfly the traffic congestion in cities. The aircraft will also “provide new services,” says Chad Sparks, Bell’s Director of Strategic Campaigns and Business Development. “How do you create accessibility to really great-paying jobs in a downtown corridor for people who live in the outer suburbs? You’re essentially buying a quarter of their lives back by speeding up their commute.” He also imagines ambulance services and the transportation of blood, tissue and organs from hospital to hospital. DeJong sees the most immediate impact coming in areas that have suffered natural disasters. Where there has been flooding, fire, or storm damage that wrecks the transportation infrastructure, eVTOLs can bring supplies for first responders.
When she looks at an air taxi prototype like the NEXUS, DeJong says, she sees one thing: “Opportunity. Not just opportunity for passengers, but opportunity for workforce development. And the diversification of [modes of] transportation means opportunity for infrastructure, efficiency of our supply chains, and increased national security.” The idea for security is not to have all eggs in one basket.
Jason Hurst is the vice president of Bell’s Innovation Team, the engineers responsible for developing technology that will be used in the NEXUS and all of Bell’s future vehicles. One of the enabling technologies for eVTOLs is distributed electric propulsion; most air-taxi designs have four, six, or more engines, whereas conventional aircraft have one or two. “Distributed propulsion is significant for safety,” says Hurst. “You can take a failure and still fly safely.” It’s also important in noise reduction, an important concern for aircraft that will overfly cities.
The new air taxis also will have sensors that inform the pilot of obstacles in the air or on the approach to landing. “Like cars that can warn of danger during a lane-change and offer rear-view cameras and braking abilities,” he says, these aircraft will have technologies providing 360-degree awareness. Eventually, they will be able to fly autonomously. “The core of our ability,” Hurst adds, is to build aircraft that can hover and transition to efficient wing-borne flight, which is a lot quieter, a lot faster, and uses a lot less energy.”
Everyone I spoke to about eVTOLs says that no one knows how fast operations will roll out once FAA certification is complete, how the flying public will react to these early aircraft, or which company will be the first one to enter the marketplace. “We acknowledge a lot of energy and creativity in this space,” says Sparks, “which is really exciting.” He believes the introduction of air taxis is a significant moment in aviation history. “We’re sitting at another step-function change, another paradigm shift. When you look back at the Wright brothers and early flight to the jet age to the space age—I don’t know what we’ll call it—the more electrified, autonomous age of aircraft.”
The excitement in the field also means a lot of competition for the Bell NEXUS, and although our conversation is on the phone, I can almost hear a smile in Sparks’ voice as he says, “We temper that excitement with the knowledge that the path for certification, production, and operation of these vehicles is a fairly challenging one. Our history in type-certifying more than 30-odd vehicles tells us this is a multi- multi-year approach.” I predict that anyone who sees the Bell NEXUS at the Smithsonian’s Futures exhibit, which will be on view through July 2022, will have a single message for the air-taxi builders: “Hurry up!”