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Official: Despite Accident, Bell Remains Committed To UAVs

By | April 24, 2006


      Bell Helicopter Inc. has a plan to be the top provider of vertical-lift unmanned aerial vehicles, regardless of the mishap experienced this month by one such drone, according to a company official.The company, a subsidiary of Textron Inc., has a long-term vision to offer a portfolio of vertical-lift unmanned aerial systems (UASs), said John Rudy, director of unmanned programs business development.

      "We plan on being the premier provider of tactical, vertical-lift UAS systems," he said. "And we’ll take the technology that’s developed through prototypes that we’re building right now; we’ll make those applicable to tilt-rotor UAS systems similar to the one that we’re building for the Coast Guard right now. We anticipate we’ll be building some for the Marine Corps.

      "And then on the [other] side, we want to apply that technology to the development of vertical-lift, unmanned helicopters," he added.That’s despite what Rudy termed a "mishap" that occurred earlier this month involving a Bell Eagle Eye TR-918 flying drone. The TR-918 had its first flight in January.

      This month during routine flight testing of the TR-918, the vehicle experienced an unexpected loss of engine power which resulted in a hard landing and "significant damage to that system," Rudy said.There were no injuries and no other property damage related to the accident, he said."Currently, right now, Bell is launching an investigation to determine what the root cause of that was," he added.The TR-918 is powered by a Pratt & Whitney 207 engine, Rudy said.The accident will not shake Bell’s commitment to the unmanned market, Rudy said.

      "This is a minor mishap. We’re going to rebuild and we are going to begin pushing forward with another Eagle Eye system as well as multiple other UAS systems long-term," he said. Bell will learn from the accident and its cause and "apply it to future systems moving forward," he added.There is U.S. and international interest in the Eagle Eye for both maritime and land-based missions, Rudy said.

      Bell is investing "significant amounts" in tilt-rotor and other unmanned helicopter technologies, Rudy said."We are investing heavily in our UAS sector," he said, citing as an example the company’s Xworkx UAS Flight Test Center that opened in Texas at the end of last year. Bell officials also believe that in the future, unmanned aircraft will fly in airspace controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration, Rudy said."We envision ourselves in being a leader helping that develop," he said.

      `Where The Market Is Going’

      Bell is working with the Army on an analysis to understand future service requirements "and then align our systems and technology development to meet those requirements long-term," Rudy said.

      The company anticipates future Army requirements will include manned/unmanned teaming, resupply operations and integration in U.S. national airspace, he said. "These are all things that we, Bell, have a tremendous amount of interest in moving forward," he said.Bell flew its first UAV in 1988, Rudy said.

      "We are committed to being in the unmanned business program," he said. "Ten years ago, it was kind of a collateral duty that we kind of did on the side. But now we realize that to be a leader in the vertical-lift market, you have to be a leader in vertical-lift unmanned systems going forward because that is where the market is going."

      The Department of Defense (DOD) is not as interested in pure development programs anymore, Rudy said.The Pentagon someday will look at buying commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) UAVs, he said. "They want to take COTS solutions and `unman’ them," he said.

      "Where we, Bell, are uniquely positioned to do very well in that because we have an installed base of 10,000 existing platforms right now."

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