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Friday, July 1, 2011

Future is VTOL; But How to Get There?

By Andrew Drwiega

The world’s leading helicopter designers and manufacturers need to radically change their products to incorporate more speed, greater range, bigger payloads, better reliability and reduced operating costs. This is a message that Philip Dunford, VP and COO for Boeing Mobility Systems, says he has been preaching “for the last seven years” and he is still doing so today although now it seems, to the converted. While there is nothing inherently new in the capability wish-list, the trend until recently has been to expand existing product ranges or refine the performance of individual models within the accepted norms of traditional helicopter operations. “Performance and capability has not changed over the last 30 years—and it needs to,” says Dunford. Before he took up his latest post, Dunford had been vice president and general manager of Boeing Rotorcraft Systems. Speaking at the Future Rotorcraft Forum, held in early June at the Royal Aeronautical Society headquarters in London, he shared the program with such peers in the rotorcraft community as Giuseppe Orsi, very recently appointed as chief executive officer of Finmaccanica. Orsi, like Dunford, hails from a rotorcraft background, as up to May 2011 he was the CEO of AgustaWestland.

The conversion that has taken place is readily witnessed by the new research and development aircraft that have recently flown into the spotlight—Sikorsky’s X2 technology demonstrator and Eurocopter’s X³ hybrid helicopter—both of which have attained high speed flight or around 260 knots and 232 knots, respectively. Reading into his comments, Dunford seems specifically worried that fixed-wing will eventually steal the rotorcraft’s niche of vertical/short take-off and landing. Technology change and landmark advances in capability often come out of military research. In a study of Research, Test, Development and Evaluation Funds (RTD&E) from 1960–1980, Dunford revealed that the rotorcraft industry had received only 17 percent compared to the 83 percent allocated to the fixed-wing community. It was slightly worse in procurement terms with 16 percent of revenues going on helicopters while 84 percent went the other way. “We are so far behind the fixed-wing world it is untrue,” he stated.

There does seem to be a window of opportunity opening up for the rotorcraft industry, according to Orsi, who said that the international helicopter OEMs had not been significantly affected by the recession. “There is more demand for our products than ever before. The economic crisis largely passed the OEMs by... and most increased revenue and profitability.”

Orsi was looking ahead in time to 2050. He envisaged saturated airspace where aircraft lifting small numbers of passengers, up to 100, would have to rely on vertical take-off. The pressure on landing slots [linked probably with the ongoing lack of airport expansion due to the inevitable protests that are always triggered by such proposals] will force aviation to move into the vertical/short take-off and landing dimension.

“The world of tomorrow will be unthinkably different to that of today. We must develop solutions now for the future of vertical flight,” he said. But Orsi has a good reason for espousing this vision, as the AgustaWestland part of his company works toward certification of the Bell/Agusta BA609, the smaller civilian version of the Bell/Boeing V-22. The unfeasibly long time that it has taken from conception to bring this aircraft into service has meant that the chances of it going into production as it stands with a certification date not expected until around 2015 [revealed by AgustaWestland’s CTO Luciano Marcocci at the conference] must be doubtful.

Bob Caresse, executive director, Bell Boeing V-22 and closely connected to the aircraft’s business development drive, freely admitted that the age of its design and component parts meant that, in consideration of pushing the concept through to future uses, “many of its pieces would need to be looked at again. It was a genius of its time, but the mechanics are getting older.”

As with any future product intentions, the development work needs to begin now. Orsi said that the industry is “at a cusp” and explained the dichotomy of the situation in which OEMs are placed: “The engineering and commercial challenge is significant to meet the need, but the need is not yet fully clear.”

Dunford summarized the bottom line—OEMs were going to have to drive their own R&D programs because government funding was very scarce with little likelihood of short-term improvement, particularly on the scale required by radically new concepts and designs. R&D needed to be driven across the business which, he said, was why Boeing had regrouped its own internal organization to be able to share developments across the business enterprise. He added that there was also the need to drive down development time and perhaps, one way to achieve that was for OEM competitors to really identify areas where they could cooperate for the good of all. It may indeed be time to start changing the rules of competition.

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