Textron subsidiary, Bell Textron has announced its acquisition of the Rhode Island based aviation solutions firm, Response Technologies LLC. The take over was finalized on the 7th of December and will see the company integrated into Bell Textron’s world-leading helicopter manufacturing division. Bell Textron’s CEO Mitch Snyder emphasized the particular interest Bell had in Response Technologies progress on fuel cell technologies. The company’s purchase is a reflection of the company’s significant interest in developing their own fuel cell technologies, acquiring the company will bring Bell Textron in-house expertise in this rapidly developing field. Bell Helicopter’s eagerness to explore fuel cell technologies comes as they attempt to cement themselves as key partners in the US Army and Navy’s Future Vertical Lift programme (FVL). The project, launched in 2004 seeks to replace the US military’s helicopter fleet due to an acute capability gap believed to have been showcased in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Bell’s entry to the project has been a successor craft to its iconic V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor craft, in the form of the V-280 unveiled at the 2013 Army Aviation Association of America’s Annual Professional Forum. The acquired firm, Response Technologies LLC was founded in 2015 and has consistently been involved with the US Government through its participation in the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programme. The programme seeks to aid small domestic businesses grow through the awarding of federal investment monies, with the monies being distributed in phases to candidate firms in line with product development success. Response Technologies LLC has received four SBIR awards during the past two years.
The current product line offered by Response Technologies LLC consists of self-sealing fuel cells, a dynamic self-sealing polymer and an explosion suppression foam. The company has received SBIR investment awards for the phase I and phase II development of its fuel cells, explosive foam and helicopter fuel bladder solutions. The phase I SBIR award consists of a $50,000 to $250,000 payment for a six month period whilst the phase III SBIR award consists of a maximum investment of $750,000. Bell Helicopter’s main attraction is to the fuel cell technology offered by the company. The principle draw of fuel cell technologies, is the predicted ability to remove combustion engines from future aircraft. The removal of combustion engines would result in a significant weight reduction on aircraft, through the shedding of the extensive machinery required to operate the combustion energy production method, relying as it does on moving objects through fuel ignition. The fuel cell replaces the reliance on flammable fuel ignition via the introduction of a non-ignition based interaction between chemicals to produce an electric current. The energy generation method uses a redox reaction to transfer electrons, most typically between hydrogen and oxygen. The two chemicals are then introduced to a liquid which is then subject to a cathode-anode system. The cathode harvests the electrons produced by the exchange while the anode processes those electrons into an electrical current to be utilized as the vehicle’s power supply. The result is an energy production system with no moving parts, which doesn’t require the carrying of weighty aviation fuel and is capable of providing electricity as long as oxygen is present.
The development of fuel cell technologies would result in the radical redesign of aircraft, possessing the potential to remove drag producing fuel tanks, ditch heavy liquid fuels and permit lower overall fuel consumption, in addition to the elimination of large combustion engines. The result would be increased range, payload weight capacity and maximum mission time. The benefits are particularly potent in Bell Textron’s aviation niche, the area of tilt-rotor craft design and construction. Tilt-rotor aircraft are typically incapable of carrying medium or heavy lift payloads and have to maintain a relatively low lift capacity. The design of tilt-rotor craft does trades a medium-heavy cargo capability to provide a greater range than conventional helicopters. The aircraft’s immense range potential is currently limited by the amount of fuel it can carry. The low payload capacity and consequent low fuel carry ability would both be eliminated by the use of advanced fuel cells. Fuel cells would allow for the creation of tilt-rotor helicopters able to outmatch heavy-lift conventional helicopters for weight and increase their lead in operational range. The first company to master fuel cell powered tilt-rotor would be able to manufacture the most capable tilt-rotor ever designed, a feat likely to drastically change the market in rotary-wing aviation. The acquisition of Response Technologies LLC increases Bell Textron’s position, to potentially be the first company to successfully incorporate fuel cell technologies in tilt-rotor aircraft on a large scale. Accepting integration will allow Response Technologies LLC to benefit from increased funding and R&D opportunities, placing it in an excellent position to push the boundaries of its research.