How Bell Aims to Revolutionize Military Flight

By Amy Kluber | May 3, 2018
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Bell Helicopter's V-280 takes its first flight in Amarillo, Texas. Photo courtesy of Bell

Bell Helicopter's V-280 takes its first flight in Amarillo, Texas. Photo courtesy of Bell

It’s been more than two months since Bell rebranded itself with a new logo and name, prominently dropping the “Helicopter” from “Bell Helicopter” and releasing a redesigned website introducing “The New Bell.” But Bell’s revamp is more than just a new look, as the manufacturer continues to set itself up for a path that will redefine flight, especially for the military.

Perhaps one evidence of this philosophy is the manufacturer’s open-systems-architecture approach toward its contribution for a Pentagon program aimed at replacing current fleets of helicopters in the U.S. military.


“We want an architectural backbone with the ability for suppliers to come with their sensor and a wire that plugs into the correct interface on the mission computer,” Bell EVP of Military Business Vince Tobin told R&WI after speaking on a panel at Defense Daily’s Modular Open Systems Summit (MOSS) this week. “We want to eliminate the days where a supplier shows up with a box of electronics and their own architecture and then have to figure out how to integrate it.”

Bell is developing the V-280 Valor tiltrotor as part of the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator program, a precursor effort to the U.S. Army-led Future Vertical Lift (FVL). Its competitor: a Sikorsky-Boeing team with its demonstrator, the SB>1 Defiant.

Bell’s open-architecture vision for its tiltrotor echoes that of U.S. military leaders, who desire a family of aircraft — possibly more than just helicopters — that allows for rapid upgrades when needed. The Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center already confirmed that family would include next-generation unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). An open architecture across these systems is key to the success of the FVL program.

The concept of open systems drove discussions at the two-day summit, held May 1 to 2 in Washington, D.C., where Tobin spoke on a panel discussing military acquisition reform to meet multi-domain battle requirements.

Speakers at the summit addressed many of today’s concerns regarding the implementation of open-architecture technological infrastructure within mission-critical military platforms. Difficulties to implementation of open architecture include the lack of agreement on standards, inefficient acquisitions processes and efficiency, among others.

There are areas, though, in which the military is actively adopting open-architecture concepts, such as the flight display systems featured in the U.S. Army's fleet of Black Hawk helicopters. The display systems feature open-architecture designs based on the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) technical standard. FACE, a standard designed to bring software interoperability to avionics technologies, is increasingly being adopted across military aircraft avionics systems.

To improve its manufacturing processes, Bell is implementing a company-wide “digital thread” concept of operations of 3-D model-based design for aircraft. Tobin said production of the 505 and 525 laid the foundation for the process, which is also being used in the development of the V-280.

Since you can’t skip steps in manufacturing, Tobin noted, you need to eliminate them, which the digital thread allows.

“So instead of using manuals, it’s all visual,” Tobin explained. “It’s a brave new world in how you design, build and maintain aircraft.”

The U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force both are incorporating similar strategies in their engineering efforts, noted panel moderator Monique Ofoli, an engility contractor and modular open systems lead for engineering tools and environments for the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Systems Engineering.

Bell’s V-280 flight-test program has met various milestones since its first flight in December 2017 and has flown 19 hours with 80 hours of rotor turn time, Tobin said. The tiltrotor last month also demonstrated it is capable of flying 140 knots — the top speed of current U.S. military helicopters. Given its name, it will eventually be capable of flying up to 280 knots. Bell said it has since swapped the flight tests’ chase helicopter for a jet.

The aircraft still has a few more milestones to meet, such as flying in “airplane mode,” or flying with its props on the downstop. Tobin said Bell expects to achieve that milestone in the next few weeks. The Army also has its own specific requirements, such as range requirements on a single fuel load, which Bell will demonstrate in future tests.

Tobin addressed reported customer concerns with agility, telling R&WI that the aircraft has been designed to be as agile as any other aircraft in flight. Tobin said flight testing in the next several months will focus on expanding the envelope to undergo roll and yaw acceleration tests.

The Army in February has joined the flight test operations, with an Army experimental pilot performing a flight test to demonstrate ground effect repositioning, pattern flight and roll-on landings. Tobin said Bell is hoping to get the U.S. Marine Corps similarly involved in tests.

In other efforts to redefine flight, Bell has announced the opening of its Advanced Vertical Lift Center in Arlington, Virginia, for later this month. The center, Tobin told R&WI, aims to educate the public or potential customers — with an emphasis on the military community — about FVL through simulations and demonstrations of its offerings.

The “experience,” as Bell calls it, will provide an interactive atmosphere. On display will be everything across Bell’s product range, including its unmanned and urban air mobility technology, which Tobin said Bell is looking into for military applications.

“It’s very difficult at Bell to draw a bright line to say this is commercial and this is military. Our technology is intertwined,” he said. “We fully expect there are things we are developing for the commercial world that are going to have applications in military and vice versa.”

Bell is opening the vertical-lift center May 23.

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