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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.