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Monday, February 1, 2010

Rotorcraft Report: NASA Drop-Tests Helicopter Landing Cushion

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Researchers at NASA Langley have tested a “deployable energy absorber,” by dropping a helicopter from 35 feet above the ground. The device, which features an expandable honeycomb-design cushion, was tested with the help of a U.S. Army Applied Physics Laboratory-donated MD500, four crash test dummies and a 240-foot structure that was previously used to teach astronauts how to land on the moon. Researchers are in the process of analyzing the results of the trial, but noted that while the helicopter’s skid landing gear bent outward as a result of the impact, the cushion kept the helicopter’s belly from hitting the ground.

Before and after photos of NASA’s deployable energy absorber, or crash cushion, at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. NASA/Sean Smith
Karen Jackson, an aerospace engineer that oversaw the experiment, hopes the research leads to airframe designs “that will potentially save lives.” NASA points to U.S. National Transportation Safety Board statistics which reveal that upwards of 200 people are injured in helicopter accidents annually in the United States, in part because of more challenging and risky flight operations, such as with medical and SAR missions.

Langley engineer Sotiris Kellas originally designed the Kevlar “honeycomb airbag” cushion for astronaut space capsules, but realized that it could be used in other applications.

Jackson described the test conditions as similar to a “relatively severe helicopter crash,” with a flight path angle of 33 degrees and combined forward and vertical speeds of 48 feet per second (33 mph). “We got data to validate our integrated computer models that predict how all parts of the helicopter and the occupants react in a crash,” she explained. The Langley researchers plan to drop the helicopter again during 2010, but without the crash cushion, to compare the impact differences.

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