Bell Adds Pratt, SNC to HSVTOL Team

 - April 11, 2023, 9:39 AM
Bell’s proposed high-speed VTOL aircraft will hover and fly at more than 400 knots. (Rendering: Bell)

Bell is onboarding strategic partners as it continues research into development of a high-speed vertical takeoff and landing (HSVTOL) aircraft as part of research funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF's) Afwerx HSVTOL Concept Challenge program.  A company spokesman recently told AIN, “Bell and its industry partners continue to reduce risk related to HSVTOL technologies to accelerate the potential fielding timeline for an operational aircraft. We will continue to showcase new progress to customers in exciting ways this year.”

The Afwerx HSVTOL Concept Challenge is a crowdsourcing effort for the USAF and United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). Bell is one of 11 companies from more than 200 challenge entrants selected to receive market research investments aimed at advancing HSVTOL technology. Afwerx is designed to produce lower-cost weapons with increased lethality. 

Bell first announced its HSVTOL efforts in 2021. The concept could eventually be a follow-on design for the company’s V-22 and V-280 tiltrotor programs. Production of the V-22 is winding down and late last year the U.S. Army selected the Bell V-280 technology demonstrator as the basis for a design to fulfill its future long-range assault aircraft (FLRAA) requirement in a deal potentially covering 4,000 aircraft potentially worth an estimated $80 billion. 

HSVTOL blends helicopter and fixed-wing technology to deliver cruising speeds above 400 knots and long hover endurance across platforms ranging in size from 4,000 to over 100,000 pounds. Bell’s preliminary design features proprotors that extend or retract at low speeds and uses straight jet propulsion for high-speed forward thrust. “Bell’s HSVTOL technology is a step change improvement in rotorcraft capabilities,” said Jason Hurst, Bell vice president of innovation. “Our technology investments have reduced risk and prepared us for rapid development of HSVTOL in a digital engineering environment, leveraging experience from a robust past of technology exploration and close partnerships with the [U.S.] Department of Defense and research laboratories.”

Over the past year, Bell has announced collaboration on its HSVTOL efforts with Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) and Pratt & Whitney. SNC will support the design and development of mission systems for HSVTOL variants designed to carry out missions such as personnel recovery, contested logistics, autonomous ISR/strike, and tactical mobility.

“To advance technical maturity and deliver HSVTOL capability to warfighters sooner, Bell is assembling a team of industry-leading partners. We’re thrilled to have SNC onboard,” said Hurst. “We’ve made significant progress in Bell’s HSVTOL technology development in 2022.” SNC is also working with Bell on mission systems for the Bell 360 Invictus, the OEM’s entry in the future attack and reconnaissance aircraft (FARA) competition. 

The agreement with Pratt & Whitney, announced in March, calls for the engine manufacturer to collaborate on HSVTOL propulsion solutions.  “We’re excited to dig into HSVTOL propulsion technology research with Bell and showcase what this next-generation capability could bring to USAF and other warfighters,” said Steven Burd, Pratt & Whitney director and chief engineer of advanced military engine programs.

Bell developed a full-scale demonstration of its folding rotor technology and digital flight control systems for HSVTOL in December 2021, building and testing the hardware and software required to perform a full conversion of the rotor system from turboprop to jet mode. “This full-scale demonstration was an exciting event to see our digital design come to life and allowed us to rapidly validate key assumptions we were making in the functionality of these systems. We look forward to integrating these results as we set our sights on the buildup of an integrated demo combining additional aircraft systems,” said Troy Schank, Bell manager for advanced technology integration and HSVTOL chief engineer.