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New helicopter technology is driving sales

Jørn Madslien, PE Team

(Credit: Lee Martin)
(Credit: Lee Martin)

After five years in the doldrums, when global sales of civilian helicopters fell by a third, the market is rising again.

Sales rose 3% during the first half of the year, and Airbus Helicopters predicts that the fleet will almost double in the next two decades. Much of the growth is powered by technology that is making helicopters safer, more comfortable and faster, offering greater utility at lower cost.

“We are living through a revolution,” Tomasz Krysinski, vice-president of research and innovation at Airbus Helicopters, told PE.

The Airbus Racer, or Rapid and Cost-Effective Rotorcraft, which is scheduled for first flight in 2020, is a sign of things to come. It is twice as fast as conventional helicopters, yet a quarter cheaper, according to Krysinski. “You fly quicker and you consume less,” he said. “At 190 knots the Racer consumes 30% less fuel than a conventional helicopter does whilst doing 130 knots.”

The Racer is equipped with forward-facing pusher propellers that deliver thrust, which means it is optimised for cruising at more than 215 knots. These propellers are attached to a V-shaped box-wing structure designed to minimise the blocking of the main rotor’s downwash, while still delivering lift performance of their own.

The lift delivered by the short wings and the propulsion by the push propellers allow for the main rotor to be slowed down while cruising, which reduces fuel consumption, vibration and noise, and allows for steeper climbs and gliding descents, Krysinski explained.

Reduced demand for power to the main rotor during cruising means one engine can be turned off, an operation aided by a 300V stop-start system that hints at the emergence of electrified solutions in rotorcraft.

Alongside new helicopter designs, we are seeing better use of technologies that improve a pilot’s situational awareness. These include visualisation tools, such as gyro-stabilised cameras, lasers, forward-looking infrared, lidar, and night vision based on next-generation searchlights, which are all central to the way helicopter flight is becoming safer.

These are coupled with improved mapping technology that relies on better data input and improved visual 3D representations of the landscape on sophisticated synthetic vision screens in the cockpit or inside pilots’ helmets.

Pilots will increasingly be able to access “blended vision systems offering the ability to toggle between one or the other, or various blended visions, depending on the circumstances,” said Captain Tricky Dane, Bristow Helicopters’ search and rescue standards and training manager.

Improved avionics connectivity is also changing the game, allowing for live mapping, or for app-based solutions, such as the Norwegian LZ-World landing zone database. It maps obstacles by using satellite images and pilots’ photos.

Seeking to avoid unknown landing sites reduces the risk of accidents, said Roy Jenssen, operational adviser at Air Ambulance Services of Norway. “We don’t want to make money from this, we want to make it available to anyone,” he said.

Improved connectivity also paves the way for more automation, to “allow the pilot to focus less on the controls and more on the mission”, said Krysinski, and perhaps in time enable autonomous flight.

The connectivity also adds utility for users, such as the emergency services, who can relay diagnostics, telemedicine and therapeutic data to experts on the ground. “It’s very reassuring when you can get help from medical professionals onshore,” said Jeremy Richardson, clinical adviser, search and rescue at Babcock Mission Critical Services Offshore.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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