Will We Ever See That Leap Ahead in Chopper Tech?

Here’s a question we’ve been hearing for well over a year now, where’s the serious innovation going to come from in the helicopter industry? Think about it almost all of the Pentagon’s choppers, even the new buys like the Marines’ CH-53K, are based on decades-old designs.

One problem, industry officials have long said, is that as government R&D funding for rotorcraft dries up, the talent needed to produce serious leaps ahead in technology will dwindle. This lack of cash and engineering resources means that we’ll continue to see incremental increases in chopper tech but serious leaps ahead like we saw in previous decades have largely disappeared, save for the nearly three-decade long developmental saga of the V-22 Osprey.

Here’s an excerpt from a piece I wrote last year at Defense News:

“Production funding [for old designs] is at an all-time high,” while rotorcraft R&D funds are at an all-time low, said Phil Dunford, vice president of international rotorcraft systems at Boeing. “What’s driving that is that over the last 10 or 15 years we’ve been in a war-fighting environment, and that’s driven production rates up and R&D funding has dropped off to match.”

The helicopter industry has simply refined and upgraded airframe designs that are up to 50 years old, meaning that in some cases, helicopters remain as vulnerable to small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and sand brownouts as they were during the Vietnam War, Dunford said.

This trend may now be coming to a slow end. The Pentagon recently unveiled plans to develop four new classes of chopper known as “joint multi-role” rotorcraft. They’re supposed to be employed by all four services (like the H-60 Black Hawk design) and are supposed to share basic design characteristics in an effort to keep costs down. The birds will be in the light, medium, heavy and ultra- size categories and the Army just unveiled its requirements for a medium-size, optionally-manned aircraft under the aegis of the joint multi-role effort.

Calling them choppers is a bit of a misnomer since the Army wants an aircraft that can carry nine troops along with sensors and weapons and fly at 200 knots. That’s a serious evolution in technology that, as Steve Trimble has pointed out, will require something along the lines of a V-22-like design. Or maybe, one of Sikorsky’s new coaxial-rotor birds, like the X2 shown in the video above. Given that the Army wants its birds in service by 2030, this means industry has got to scramble. For now, my money is on Bell-Boeing and Sikorsky to produce designs that are at the front of the competition. Boeing’s already got production and design experience building the 200+ knot V-22 and Sikorsky is planning on flying the Raider by mid-decade.

Still, we’ll see what happens with this effort in an age of belt tightening and an eye toward buying weapons systems that are built off proven technology.

  • Guest

    I wonder then what, if anything, Bell Xworxs has in development?

    • mike

      Commanche…need we say more?!

      • Guest

        What? That was Boeing/Sikorsky, so yes you do need to say more.

  • Nathan

    Badass… I want one for the morning commute.

  • Oblat

    Another shameless industry project to secure funding. There is no military need and no improved technology but the swine need to be fed.

    It has all the hallmarks that we have come to expect - arbitrary specifications, no defined need, combine as many programs as possible into one monster disaster so it’s too big to fail. And even open discussion how industry competition can be reduced.

    • Guest

      You really need to get laid or something…

      • seeker6079

        My guess is that the DOD guys who sign the massive cheques for this stuff — paid for with your money and IOUs from your kids, grandkids and great-grandkids — are going to get laid a LOT, courtesy of Sikorsky.

        • Guest

          If they even buy them that is.

    • William C.

      “There is no military need for improved technology.”

      Didn’t somebody in the Roman Empire say that?

      Sounds like your just some bitter liberal pissed that money is going towards aerospace developments rather than going into your pocket.

  • Dfens

    This is a great program. Sikorsky is willing to pony up the money for development of this technology themselves instead of relying on the US government. This allows them to design their vehicle based on what engineers know to be the state of the art at the time, instead of relying on a bunch of bureaucratic DoD idjits to come up with a raft of useless requirements that first of all conflict and don’t equate to a design, and secondly, don’t have any clue as to what can be accomplished with the technology that’s available today.

    The biggest down side to Sikorsky is that without the vast bureaucracy built around a typical DoD development program, selling this helicopter to the Army will be an uphill battle. This kind of development approach clearly threatens the status quo, much as the C-130J and F-20 Tigershark did when they were developed. Fortunately the C-130J was successful due mainly to the political clout of the Georgia congressional delegation at the time. The F-20 was allowed to die because the military bureacracy was fully invested in the development of the F-16.

    • seeker6079

      Quite correct re F-20. Too good and too cheap, therefore unacceptable.

      • William C.

        Regarding the F-20, I personally think that the new blocks of the F-16 being introduced at the time were a better choice for the USAF. However the F-20 should have really been selected over the “F-16N” for the Navy’s aggressor requirement. I wish it had seen some export success as well.

        • Dfens

          The F-16 was designed back when contractors were only being reimbursed for development costs. They weren’t actually making a profit on them as they are now. It was a bit expensive when it was introduced, but the costs have come down to the point that it is fairly reasonably priced today. That said, there was no reason there couldn’t have been room for the F-20 as well. Then president Carter had requested that defense contractors be willing to invest their own funds in development and then his government left Northrop hanging after they designed the F-20 and built production prototypes. This is a good example of the control the bureaucrats hold over Washington DC.

  • gearhead1

    What new technology? This is the Advancing Blade Concept, or ABC program, that I worked on at Sikorsky back in the 60’s. At that time it also had stub wings with small turbine engines on each. Last time I saw the prototype mock-up it was shipped to the wind tunnel at Moffat Field circa 1969! It was a great idea then, and still is. Sometimes technology has to wait for an application.

    • Curt

      You mean sometimes technology has to wait for enabling technolgy to mature. The ABC concept was shelved due to extremely high vibration. New technology in the X2 including better blades, fly by wire, active damping, and variable speed rotor alleviate that issue.

      • YanniT

        Interestingly the XH-59B was basically envisioned as almost the exact same layout as the X2 TD, except it had a ducted pusher a la Piasecki speedhawk.

        The vibration was one one issue out of a list that got the project shelved. The X2 does eliminate some of the vibration issues, but not to the effect expected (ever wonder why they didnt release the cockpit video from the high speed flights?)

        Another noteworthy aspect is a rather severe fuel thirst and the big question of how to fix the very poor autorotative performance of the XH59…and to my knowledge the X2 TD never went through an autorotation.

  • ew-3

    Helicopters are up against the laws of physics, which are nigh impossible to overcome.
    As long as they rely on spinning blades they are fairly stuck. They can tweak and tweak but not much will change.

    Time to think of the helicopter as a vertical take off vehicle.
    What other way is there to provide vertical thrust?

    • Guest

      A vertical jet engine…?

    • Another Guest

      create a vacuum above it?

    • Thomas L. Nielsen

      It boils down to disk loading versus jet velocity. If something is good at hovering, it sucks at going fast, and vice versa.

      So no free lunch here either, unless someone comes up with something based on radically different aerodynamics (which would be cool, but I’m not holding my breath….).

      Regards & all,

      Thomas L. Nielsen
      Luxembourg

    • SJE

      Giant pogo stick

  • JEFF J

    I like Sikorsky’s X2, they are doing the development on their own and have done solid work in the past on the H-60 and H-53. I’m still not sold on the V-22…I think it’s a cool idea but I think the X2 is a better/safer design. Wish we had more prime contractors working on developing their own aircraft, that would be true competition.

  • Guest

    I’m sure over time they’ll look at maybe designing a larger version much like the V-44 or something.

  • Guest

    Crossbows, P-51s and PS2s work very well too, so why did we bother to get new stuff then?

  • SJE

    One of the biggest risks in developing a new copter is that any screw up can lead to a catastrophic failure, killing the occupants and destroying the prototype. Thus, if there is a good design, you are less likely to tinker with it, and anything new faces huge hurdles to justify the cost (e.g. V22).

    With the growth of robotics and unmanned craft, you can now do your testing on smaller/cheaper prototypes, and without the risk that you will kill the pilots. The most innovative hovering stuff I have seen in recent years is in the micro-scale designs.

    • Guest

      Did you know that Bell built an unmanned tilt-rotor?

      • SJE

        Yes, but the ability to operate and test new and risky aircraft is much greater when your robots are as good as human pilots.

        • Guest

          Well they do seem to be getting smarter every day. Everything always looks good on paper though, as they say.

  • SJE

    A friend of mine worked on V22. A very impressive bird

  • SJE

    “Pentagon recently unveiled plans to develop four new classes of chopper known as “joint multi-role” rotorcraft. They’re supposed to be employed by all four services (like the H-60 Black Hawk design) and are supposed to share basic design characteristics in an effort to keep costs down”

    Coz that worked so well with the F35

    • IFB

      Do the marines also use Black Hawks? I thought they went with the more expensive option of refurbishing Hueys to make sure the Osprey wouldn’t get canned.

      • Guest

        The MArines do not operate H-60s. They fly the H-53, H-46, V-22, and H-1s.

        • IFB

          Ok, thanks for the answer. Looks like there’s a mistake in the article then.

        • Riceball

          Actually, the Corps does operate a small handful of H-60s, they’re part of the squadron that flies the President around. So technically the Corps does operate H-06s, just not in regular fleet service.

          • Guest

            Good point. They use the H-3 also. I never consider HMX-1 helos when I talk about the Corps, and you’d think I would being a 53 mech and all…

  • YanniT

    X2 is somewhat of a dead end technology unfortunately. Yes it can probably make an effective scout helicopter, but anything over 10-12,000 lbs gross weight will require a stiff high-hinge offset rotor which will be impossible to build at those diameters.

    There are major issues scaling the technology up. Sikorsky likes to claim it is scalable, but what they are actually referring to is the idea of a high speed coaxial ABC rotor would work at a large diameter…..not that they have any idea how to build a blade that would be stiff enough not to have issues with tip plane divergence.

    Plus there are issues of serious fuel consumption at high speeds and the fact they never took the tech demonstrator through autorotation.

    • Moose

      Great post. Sikorsky has some tricks up its sleeve that could get them to the to the 20,000-24,000lbs range but that’s about the ceiling of where they could go for the immediate future. But even so, it makes the technology pretty viable for scouts and UAVs, of which there will be large numbers going forward.

      • YanniT

        True, the small market is where I think its destined provided the kinks get worked out (though smaller should = cheaper in the minds of most customers)

        They do have a patent for a static root end blade layout, with double C channel spars and a torque tube down the centerline, but this was primarily for interface with the hub sail fairings and achieving a close tolerance fit.

        At around 20,000 lbs you might get away with spacing the rotors further apart with even the stiffest blade layups, but then you begin rapidly diminishing the benefits of the coaxial rotor.

        It is a tradeoff on which I think tiltrotors will always have the scalability advantage.

        • moose

          No argument here, I’m a big proponent of Tilt-rotors going forward.

          • William C.

            I like the idea of tilt-rotors for V-22 sized and above roles. (Perhaps a CH-47 replacement) but when it comes to fielding replacements for the AH/UH-1, OH-58, UH-60, and AH-64 I think something with the X2 configuration might be more suitable.

          • Guest

            The V-44 concept was supposed to be like a C-130 size fuselage with two wings and four engine pylons. Pretty wild stuff.

          • SJE

            It seems to me that the biggest problem is turbulence from the front blades affecting the back blades when they are rotating forward and in the forward position.

          • Guest

            yeah, the picture I saw had shorter front wings and they were lower than the back wing. The V-22 has vortex generators on the top of the wings to help eliminate that issue for yaw and pitch control. I’d imagine they would have had them on the V-44 also.

  • Sanem

    a technological development not mentioned here is the UAV

    while manned helicopters have many good uses, UAVs are already overtaking them in many roles, namely recon and fire support, being cheaper and expendable with better performance

    I imagine this trend will continue as UAVs get better. for example unmanned transport is up next, but we’ll also see armed UAV helicopters

    and then there are the airships making a comeback, being an excellent unmanned platform for recon and even transport

    • guest

      hell no. Would you want to ride in an unpiloted transport helo? Would you like to have your life in the hands of some robot gunship piloted from thousands of miles away rather than a pilot with eyes on the situation?
      unmanned helos could be a useful tool for recon, surveilance, and limited fire support, but they should be in support of manned craft, not a replacement.

      • Guest

        Actually, they are looking into this concept except there will be an operator on site in another helo. I guess the idea is to have one manned aircraft control one or more remotly piloted aircraft for such missions. I had the same reaction you do and said almost the exact same thing when my friend, who works on one of the flight test programs, told me about it.

  • Dfens

    Airships are missile magnets. I know of better VTOL technologies than anything any of you have ever heard of, but why bring it up in today’s aerospace industry? All that would do is set me up as the target for abuse, then later someone would “discover” my idea and claim it was their own. I don’t doubt there are good ideas that die every day in this industry for that very same reason. What a hell hole we’ve created.

    • William C.

      Ducted lift fans? Many “unconventional” VTOL ideas have been tried in the past, particularly during the 1960s. Perhaps as technology improves some of them will reappear.

      When you consider how stagnant helicopter development has been in the past decades (with the exception of the V-22) I am glad enough just to see the X2 which looks rather promising. Much of the concepts employed have been pioneered on other designs but the X2 combines a lot of those.

    • Thomas L. Nielsen

      “I know of better VTOL technologies than anything any of you have ever heard of…”

      Really? Well good for you. May I recommend somewhere like Above Top Secret for you, where they actually seem to enjoy unsubstantiated claims likle that?

      Regards & all,

      Thomas L. Nielsen
      Luxembourg

      • MechGrunt

        Bwah hahaha!

    • Sanem

      “Airships are missile magnets”

      a fair point, but

      a) that does not matter when operating in the ISR role, at high altitude

      b) Airships are actually very resistant to missiles and AAA because of their size, their large air envelope can absorb such shots with little effect to its performance

      c) they only cost a fraction of a helicopter to operate. especially for regular resupply missions to non-violent positions, this is a huge advantage in an area as rugged and dangerous for ground transports as Afghanistan. they’re also a LOT more silent than helicopters, meaning that when operating at night or with overcast, Taliban will not easily be forewarned of their comming and thus be too late to deploy an ambush at the drop site

      d) helicopters are also huge missile magnets, but unlike airships a single hit is likely to send a chopper crashing down. they’re also a lot more expensive in time and money to replace

  • Curt

    Not to mention that once you have a decent dynamic system, you can easily change what’s under it. The typical attack helicopter and medium lift utility helicopter are roughly the same size. Witness the UH-1 and AH-1.

  • Allanx

    The Sikorsky X2 prototype has already gone 250 knots while level, and over 260 knots in a slight dive of a few degrees. The tech to go over 200 knots in a multi-purpose compound coaxial-rotor helicopter is already there; the only problem is building the right helicopter to meet the military’s needs. The reason why they canceled the Comanche was because UAV drones were already starting to fulfill the low-observable reconnaissance/light-attack role without putting pilots and expensive hardware at risk of being shot down.

    The only reason to even HAVE a helicopter these days is to put boots on the ground pretty much anywhere. The US military helicopter of the future will be part transport chopper, part gunship… like a Mil Mi-24 or MH-60L DAP, only much faster, more agile and harder to shoot down. I get kinda giddy just thinking about what the final prototype might look like.

  • IFB

    What operational possibilities does a marginal increase in speed from the current 170 knots to 200 knots (17%) offer that justifies the use of complex new layouts which drastically increase risk, schedule, and cost? (eg. 100% increase when comparing acquisition cost of two black hawks with an Osprey) Wonder if anybody in the army has given that a thought or if they’ve just arbitrarily picked out those requirements.

    • SJE

      Excellent points often lost on the DOD.

    • STemplar

      True enough, of course the RFI is a marginal step up, the X2 was a 66% increase over a 170 knots at 260 knots.

      There are the obvious technical questions but at the very least this looks to be a promising platform for a new attack VTOL.

      • phrogdriver

        What helicopter is currently out there that CRUISES at 170 with anything resembling a combat load? A Lynx on a speed run under ideal conditions hardly counts.

  • Guest

    One would think that, but according to wikipedia: “Testing showed those loads from that vortex on the rear rotor [are the] same as the loads we see on the front [rotors],” and “Aeroelastic stability of the wing looks exactly the same as the conventional tiltrotor”. So I guess it’s not really an issue. Plus I’d be willing to bet that all four rotors would have to be phased.