Rotor Leaders Stress Digital, Performance Advances

 - May 11, 2021, 1:15 PM

A leader of the U.S. Army Futures Command and senior rotorcraft company executives all emphasized the need not only to change how current and future rotorcraft and other vertical lift aircraft perform, but how they are made. During remarks May 10 at the keynote session of the Vertical Flight Society’s (VFS) Forum 77, they also pointed to the need to continue to recruit and retain top engineering talent as the rotorcraft industry transitions to future vertical lift programs, more efficient internal combustion and electric propulsion, and increased use of autonomous systems. 

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Thomas H. Todd III, the Army Future Command’s deputy commanding general for acquisitions and systems, stressed the need to develop “affordable” aircraft that could be “fielded at scale.” This not only applies to new future vertical lift (FVL) aircraft under development, but also the ability to digitize and modernize legacy military helicopter platforms such as the Apache, Chinook, and Black Hawk that will be operated in some cases through 2060 as FVL aircraft are integrated into the fleet over time. Cockpits of many of these aircraft already have been modernized and the Army is continuing with plans to retrofit legacy aircraft with a new generation of engines—such as the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP)—that increase shaft horsepower by 50 percent and reduces fuel burns by up to 25 percent. 

Tomasz Krysinski, v-p of research and development at Airbus Helicopters, said his company is focused on innovation that would make vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft “safer, simpler, more affordable, and more citizen-friendly.” He said the company intends to achieve these goals via the implementation of “automation, autonomy, detectability, predictability, connectivity, and sustainability.” He noted that a good deal of this enabling technology is being tested and validated between now and 2023 on the company’s flying turbine-single H130 “Helicopter Flightlab” and its “Project Vertex” that includes the use of infrared cameras and lidar sensors to support improved situational awareness and obstacle detection. 

Flight tests on noise reduction that began in April 2020 focused on buildings’ impact on people’s sound perception, with a view toward applying the data to sound modeling and regulation of urban air mobility (UAM) aircraft. Later flights in December concentrated on evaluating the rotor strike alerting system. Other tests to be conducted this year include a camera image-detection solution to enable low-altitude navigation, dedicated health and usage monitoring system (HUMS) for light helicopters, and an engine backup system that provides emergency electric power in the event of turbine failure.

Bell v-p of rapid manufacturing and prototyping Glenn Isbell emphasized a need for a cultural shift within companies to achieve vehicle performance goals. “Aircraft manufacturing can be done differently,” he noted, pointing to Bell’s new manufacturing technology center that the company intends to use to modernize manufacturing across its entire enterprise. “This is something future markets will demand and will be at the core of our success going forward,” he said. “We are using a digital enterprise to combine the expertise of our new technology and business process and applying the latest technology and tools to drive better performance and efficiency of products using simplified and inherently reliable design systems.” This drives down maintenance and direct operating costs, Isbell said. “The way the world flies these products is going to be different in the future, and we plan to lead the way.” 

Since starting operations, the facility already has born fruit toward significantly cutting lead times and costs of critical V-280 tiltrotor components, said Isbell, noting that the lead time for the aircraft’s rotor masts was shrunk from 18 months to 90 days and costs were reduced by 40 percent. 

Roberto Garavaglia, senior v-p of strategy and development for  Leonardo Helicopters, warned that the $3 billion civil helicopter market was unlikely to recover to pre-Covid levels “before the middle of this decade,” but the “sluggish” market provided an “opportunity to work and improve things.” However, he said the prospect for military rotorcraft is brighter, noting that rotorcraft are a growing share of the total 54,000-unit world military aircraft market, increasing to 40 percent from 30 percent over the last decade.

“Vertical flight has become an essential component of armed forces today,” he said. According to Garavaglia, militaries worldwide want “faster, longer-range, more agile, and more autonomous” vertical aircraft. But he cautioned that the stampede to autonomous flight “will have to respect some pretty significant regulatory restraints.”

He also pointed to the continuing trend for OEMs to improve support and cut operator maintenance costs. “Helicopters are maintenance-heavy,” Garavaglia noted, acknowledging the pressure to reduce operating costs per hour. “There is never enough cost you can take away from vertical flight. This is the most expensive way of flying on the planet. It’s a collective challenge we have as an industry.” 

Boeing’s new v-p and general manager of vertical lift, Mark Cherry, said the company continues to innovate with its existing OEM partners—including Bell, Leonardo, and Sikorsky—on a variety of military vertical lift programs with an emphasis on growing its digital capabilities. Those capabilities will someday allow rotorcraft to be “updated as the mission is being executed from a mission systems standpoint.

"It is getting offboard sensor information and changing capability with adaptable software en route. There is adaptation and updates to the maintenance and logistics platforms as the aircraft is returning from a mission.” Cherry said artificial intelligence and machine learning could be used to predict where opportunities exist to rapidly redeploy aircraft.  

Sikorsky president Paul Lemmo, who is not a pilot, said his company’s Matrix autonomous technology enabled him to be able to successfully fly an S-76 helicopter—albeit under the watchful eye of a safety pilot—after just one hour of training. “These technologies really are proving themselves.” He said FVL programs are going to take digital engineering “to the next level.”