Bell’s innovative VTOL cargo craft takes its first successful autonomous flight

Bell Helicopter’s catchily named Autonomous Pod Transport 70 (aka APT 70) has managed a major milestone, performing its first autonomous flight during a test at its Forth Worth proving ground. The aircraft is a small vertical take-off and landing craft that users four rotors to provide lift and propulsion once it’s in the air, and it’s a prototype for what Bell hopes will eventually be a small autonomous commercial cargo craft.

APT 70 has a max speed of more than 100 mph, and can carry 70 pounds on board, which is good for a fair range of potential applications, including package delivery and even things like humanitarian and rescue missions. Because of the way it flies, switching from vertical to horizontal orientation for its rotors, it can fly much faster than traditional rotor-based aircraft given similar size and power constraints.

Bell’s goal with APT 70 is to successfully simulate a commercial mission as part of the NASA Systems Integration and Operationalization demo set to take place sometime in the middle of next year. This demonstration aims to show how the aircraft can be intreated with centralized command and control and obstacle avoidance technologies, a key step in readying autonomous aircraft for commercial service in the U.S.

In addition to its U.S. demonstration mission with NASA, Bell is working with Japanese logistics company Yamato, and hopes to have their first collaborative product in market for on-demand customer deliveries sometime in the middle of next year.