This year Textron Aviation has made a big leap forward in executing its strategic plan for a leadership role in the so-called advanced air mobility (AAM) revolution. Alongside rival Embraer, it is the only other mainstream business aircraft manufacturer to be assembling a credible product portfolio of electric and autonomous aircraft.
The U.S. aerospace and defense group sees the new sector gaining serious momentum from around 2030, and by then it could potentially have several new electric aircraft ready to enter service next to a product line that already includes the ubiquitous King Air and Caravan turboprop families and Citation business jets.
In March 2021, Textron signaled its ambitions with the formation of its eAviation division under the leadership of former Textron senior vice president of sales and marketing Rob Scholl, reporting directly to group chairman and CEO Scott Donnelly. Just over 12 months later the surprise acquisition of electric aviation pioneer Pipistrel in April 2022 well and truly turned theory into practice, providing the basis for several new aircraft now in the development pipeline.
The deal also seems to have breathed new life into the plans being hatched by Textron’s helicopter division Bell for its Nexus eVTOL vehicle. After seeming content for the industry to assume that this project was on the back burner, Scholl told AIN that Bell is now building the first prototype and expects to be ready to start flying it in 2024 or 2025.
“Our design is a bit bigger than what we’re now seeing in the [eVTOL] air taxi sector, weighing 8,000 pounds, with a 50-foot wingspan and a range of 100 nm,” Scholl told AIN. “We believe this is a pragmatic choice to reflect applicable technology and regulatory considerations.”
This represents a significant range increase over earlier iterations of the Nexus that were expected to fly no further than around 60 miles. The new Nexus will be able to fly at 120 kts and its wingspan has been increased in order to meet current FAA vertical flight regulations.
The larger and longer-range model unveiled at an NBAA show press conference on Monday looks markedly different from a succession of earlier technology demonstrators that Bell has been working on over the past five years. With about the same dimensions as the Grand Caravan, it features an open rotor system with four stationary units for vertical lift and a pair of tilting rotors for the transition to cruise flight.
One of the main reasons Textron sees AAM services taking somewhat longer to gain momentum than start-up rivals pushing for launch in 2024 or 2025 are the challenges associated with new infrastructure requirements, especially in terms of airspace management, and also new regulations. “We need to be more focused on how we increase airspace capacity, how do we increase communication to get aircraft talking to each other,” Scholl stated. “If anyone can do it, Textron can.”
In his view, ground infrastructure for eVTOL operations is somewhat less of an immediate imperative as he feels the new services can get started mainly with existing infrastructure, rather than by, “building hundreds of new vertiports.” Textron is looking to build on its long-established engagement with leading regulators like the FAA and EASA to contribute to putting the AAM building blocks in place.
The Nexus program team now consists of some 50 full-time engineers, most of whom are based in Textron’s Pawnee Campus Glass House in Wichita, Kansas. Additionally, the group is tapping not only Bell’s engineering resources, but also colleagues from Pipistrel (providing battery expertise) and from other Textron units, including automotive supplier Kautex and propeller specialist McCauley.
Despite a declared willingness to accelerate Nexus’s path to market, Textron appears to see more immediate potential for fixed-wing electric aircraft. These include Pipistrel’s Velis Electro trainer, which is still the only type-certified aircraft with a growing customer base in Europe that Textron now wants to expand through achieving FAA approval.
At this past summer’s EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Textron announced plans to step up certification efforts for Pipistrel’s Panthera general aviation model. At first, the focus is on the standard model powered by a new Lycoming piston engine, but Scholl pointed out that the group’s new Slovenia-based subsidiary has already flown a hybrid-electric technology demonstrator as part of the Horizon 2020 Mahepa research and development work backed by the European Union.
Also now in the eAviation mix is Pipistrel’s Nuuva family of uncrewed cargo air vehicles, including the in-development V300 model. This has already been deployed for airspace integration testing in Europe and is intended for middle-mile freight distribution work.
The Slovenian company is also offering an uncrewed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platform called the Surveyor. This medium-altitude model has a flight endurance of up to around 30 hours.
Pipistrel has also been working on an electric 19-passenger regional airliner called the Miniliner that bares a passing resemblance to Textron’s Beech 1900 commuter.
The Miniliner is intended to operate on routes of around 300 nm, connecting small airports with little or no scheduled airline services to bigger international gateways. Scholl said this project is still in the works, albeit with a somewhat longer timeline than some of the other market opportunities now pre-occupying the eAviation team.
Parent company Textron Aviation recently announced a partnership with hydrogen propulsion system developer ZeroAvia to electrify the Cessna Grand Caravan. The companies are working to secure a supplemental type certificate to install the 600 kW ZA600 powertrain on the turboprop single by 2025.
“Getting the business economics right is a big part of the challenge for sustainable aviation,” Scholl concluded. “Textron is uniquely positioned to lead the AAM sector. Few companies will make it to market and be successful.”