The U.S. Army is preparing to award demonstrator contracts to four vendors to help design and engineer the next-generation helicopter fleet slated to fly by 2030, service officials said.
The contracts will be the latest step in an ongoing multi-year program called Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator, or JMR TD. It is an Army Science and Technology effort to explore and demonstrate the realm of the possible regarding a new generation of helicopters.
The Army plans to fly two demonstrator JMR helicopters in 2017, service officials said.
“We are looking to bring transformational vertical lift capabilities across the spectrum of operations,” said William Lewis, director of the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center, Aviation Development Directorate.
While some of the requirements for the helicopter are still being determined, some early indications call for a high-speed helicopter that can travel at speeds between 170 and 300 knots. In addition, the specifications call for an air vehicle that can fly with a combat radius of 424 kilometers and hover with a full-load at what’s called high/hot conditions – 95-degrees Fahrenheit and altitudes of 6,000 feet.
“The JMR informs the realm of the potential from an S&T perspective and that marries up with the operational side. This will be a demonstrator vehicle. They are not building the objective vehicle,” an Army official said.
Army officials want a faster, more fuel-efficient helicopter that could cover a vastly larger mission area. This would increase the combat radius and also improve arrival times for rescues operations and medical evacuations.
A faster helicopter would decrease the need to at times forward position fuel and supplies for crews on longer or extended missions. A big part of the push is to engineer a new helicopter able to reach super high speeds while retaining an ability to hover, service officials explained.
So far, the Army has spent about $20 million on the effort, but plans to spend up to $217 million on air vehicle demonstration efforts and another $70 million on mission equipment technologies such as software, electronics and sensors.
This next phase of the program is designed to build upon recently completed configuration trade analyses wherein four teams of vendors, and government experts, studied parameters for a potential air vehicle. The air vehicle assessments and studies are part of what’s called Phase 1 of the program. The 18-month trade study contracts went to Boeing, a Bell-Boeing team, Sikorsky and a 15-month contract to the AVX Corporation, Army officials said.
The Army and its industry partners have been exploring a range of potential air vehicle configurations, to include a tilt-rotor option, coaxial rotorblades and pusher props for additional thrust, among others, service officials explained.
The Army plan with these anticipated contract awards is to award four vendors the opportunity to further refine and develop their respective designs. Following these awards, the Army will then move toward an eventual down select to two demonstrator teams — before working toward a ground test and eventual flight test.
“Our basic strategy has always been we want to take four (vendors) through initial design and two through flight test,” an Army source familiar with the program indicated.
Phase two of the JMR program is focused on what’s referred to as “mission systems,” essentially sensors, avionics and other electronics designed to support the platform.
“If we’re talking about fielding an FVL by 2034, we would not want to pick radios, navigation systems, weapons and sensors that are out there today because we are talking about 20 years from now. What we don’t want to do is to specify the mission systems and develop them from today’s technology,” said an Army official.
Ultimately, mission systems configurations will include sensors, GPS, inertial navigation and graphics showing moving map displays. Sensors on the aircraft will assist with surveillance and targeting and help avoid collisions through a technology called “controlled flight into terrain.” Also, the aircraft’s mission systems will help the aircraft navigate through brown-outs or what’s called “degraded visual environment.”
The notional goal for the mission systems, or phase II of the JMR program, is to engineer technologies that are interconnected and inter-operable, service officials said.
“We do not want individual subsystems on the air vehicle of the future. We want them integrated,” an Army official said.
Last year, the Army awarded mission systems effectiveness trades and analysis contracts to vendors to study specific mission system areas. The contracts went to Rockwell Collins for avionics, Boeing for avionics communications technologies, Honeywell for sensors and sensor fusion, Lockheed Martin for avionics architecture, sensors and weapons, Sikorsky for aircraft survivability and SURVICE Engineering for survivability analysis and evaluation.
“We asked them to research and study the state of technology today in those subsystems and look at where technology is going,” an Army official said.