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Flying Aircraft Of The Future; School Pupils And Event Visitors ‘Will Decide

Controls for hyper-advanced vertical take-off vehicles could be shaped by members of the public thanks to a new, potentially trendsetting, interactive initiative.

After a partial reveal last year, the full unveiling of Bell Helicopter’s vertical-take-off-and-landing (VTOL) air taxi has been one of the biggest stories of CES 2019 so far. But despite grabbing the headlines, the Nexus is just one design in an increasingly packed sector. Bell’s experience and esteemed collaborators might give the vehicle a better chance of take-off than competitors’ concepts, but a much less conspicuous bit of technology being exhibited by the company could end up having a much wider impact.

Alongside a full-scale model of the Nexus is Bell’s Future Flight Control simulator, which the company claims will allow CES visitors to help “shape the future of flight.” The simulator is like a “blank piece of paper” to determine how non-commercial pilots would control aircraft, the company said.

The increased roll-out of intelligent computer control systems and the development of radically-different airframes, alongside a predicted shift towards short range, convenient small scale aviation, means the pilot of the future could be very different to today’s airline captains – and will therefore require a different way of interacting with vehicles.

  “The concept of urban air mobility is a new challenge for aerospace designers in the sense that the operator and avionics suite is no longer well-defined,” said Bell. “While there are challenges that face on-demand mobility, there are also great opportunities. Future operators will very likely look different than today’s pilots in terms of training requirements and familiarity with traditional avionics.”

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The simulator, which Wired reported will also be exhibited at schools and festivals such as South by Southwest later this year, will gather data from users as they complete three modules. It will begin with more traditional rotorcraft flight controls before moving towards a “less intuitive flight control ecosystem”. Bell hopes data gathered will help answer questions including ‘What interfaces are intuitive?’, ‘What actions are intuitive?’, ‘What strategies support operations by non-traditional pilots?’ and ‘How will the vehicle and operator interact with the urban traffic network?’

“The goal is to include future operators early in the design process to guide both the physical interfaces and the behind-the-scenes software to ensure a safe and easy to operate vehicle,” the firm said. “The results of this study have the potential to influence all VTOL aircraft and flight control systems for use in future aircraft.”

‘Stick people in front of a simulator’

This approach is “the way forwards,” aerospace engineer Dr Steve Wright from the University of the West of England told Professional Engineering. With increasing autonomy in the cockpits of advanced aircraft such as F-35 fighter jets, pilots’ actions are becoming more like “suggestions” to the computer, he said. This will become even more prevalent as VTOL manufacturers move from simple flight controls towards the convenience of full autonomy.

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This approach means companies have a great amount of freedom when it comes to designing control systems, and people without pilot licences could end up having an unusual amount of input.

“It’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask, if we’re going to start deskilling these vehicles in the future, ‘How do you want these sticks to be laid out?’ Stick people in front of a simulator and let them have a go, and ask for their opinions,” said Dr Wright. “Let’s find out, let’s get data. I think it’s definitely the way forwards.”

The design of the Bell Nexus could itself change before we see it above city skylines, said Dr Wright, but not because of public feedback – instead, he said the VTOL’s eye-catching ducted fans could lose their cases if desired efficiency gains are countered by increased weight and drag

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