Starved of federal funding for years, rotorcraft research in the United States is in the worst shape ever. Specialists in the field wonder whether it can be saved.
At the heart of the second flooor of an academic building northeast of Washington, behind locked doors, researchers are coming up with a new kind of helicopter. It is designed to be fairly autonomous, capable of carrying a variety of sensor packages and expendable (read inexpensive).
There are three prototype aircraft in the conference room of this project, one of which has accumulated a fair amount of flight time. Inside a frame of four arching, slender wires designed to protect it during testing, this helicopter features a compact drive train, powerplant and fuel supply suspended from coaxial rotors. The aircraft is remotely piloted and self powered and can fly for more than 15 min. The entire package, wire frame included, is about the size of a basketball or over-inflated soccer ball. The aircraft's rotor diameter is about 9 in. (23 cm.). The total aircraft weighed, at the time of Rotor & Wing's visit in mid-April, about 0.3 lb. (135 grams). The researchers' objective is to pare that weight to 0.22 lb. (100 grams).
If successful, the researchers' work could yield vehicles for combat troops as well as emergency response units to conduct surveillance over the hill and around the corner for urban warfare and rescue purposes, detect biological and chemical agents, and perform other missions. Such systems obviously would be man-portable.
Along the way, the researchers have helped expand our understanding of how small-scale rotors perform differently from traditional, large-scale ones and answer questions about how to best design rotors for such vehicles. Much of their work involves better understanding rotor dynamics at low Reynolds numbers--a measure of the interaction among an airfoil size, speed and shape and the air around it. That may sound like arcane work, unless perhaps you are a unit leader in the field who needs a better way to figure out where, in that warren of structures in front of you, the bad guys are hiding or where in the rubble a collapsed building the survivors lay.
"Micro air vehicles could have the ability to fly inside caves, tunnels, clear out houses, provide that situational awareness inside a building that troops lack today," said Dr. Darryll Pines, a professor at the Gessow Center and an advisor on the micro air vehicle project.
The researchers at the University of Maryland's Alfred Gessow Rotorcraft Center have been working on development of a hovering rotary-wing micro air vehicle for six years. The project was born in a coffee-break brainstorming session by two graduate students, Paul Samuel and Jayant Sirohi. They proposed building a micro helicopter to Pines, who cleared them to use internal money available at the center to pursue their idea. Since 1965, NASA and the U.S. Army have partnered in funding rotorcraft research in the United States. The University of Maryland is a beneficiary of that partnership. Like the Georgia Institute and Technology and Pennsylvania State University, the school has gotten a steady stream of funding to pursue both fundamental and applied research.
Pines was not the only one to see promise in Samuel and Sirohi's idea. Today, the school's rotary-wing micro air vehicle project has $5 million in funding from the Army Research Office, with which it is exploring a host of configuration, design and control options for such aircraft.
However, if two students come to Pines in 2005 with such a proposal, their idea might never even make it on to the drawing board.
Today, that NASA-Army R&D partnership is about to be scuttled. NASA rotorcraft research funding is being wiped out. As a result, money for projects at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Penn State is being choked off.
NASA has been shrinking its expenditures on, and support for, rotorcraft R&D for years. But the matter worsened with the release in February of President Bush's Fiscal 2006 budget request. That document, among other things, proposes eliminating NASA-supported rotorcraft research in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 and the years beyond. If the budget were enacted as Bush proposes, "not a shred of what was once a NASA aeronautics core competency is allowed to remain intact," said Rhett Flater, executive director of the American Helicopter Society International, the chief rotorcraft technology association in the U.S.--and perhaps the world.
Unless that is unchanged, "we won't have the money to employ people to go into rotorcraft," one senior researcher noted, "and eventually people aren't going to go into rotorcraft."
The AHS' Flater agreed. "These actions effectively close off the academic pipeline for the nation's future skilled aeronautics researchers."
According to rotorcraft research advocates in the United States, the funding situation for such activities is the most dire it has ever been.
NASA is the main vehicle for civil rotorcraft research in the country, but a House of Representatives committee that allocates money for the agency was told in March that its aeronautics program "is on its way to becoming irrelevant to the future of aeronautics in this country, and perhaps the world."
Unless NASA pursues such work, no one else will, the head of a National Research Council committee charged with reviewing that agency's aeronautics research priorities told Congress. "The committee believes research in civil applications of rotorcraft will not be conducted in government or industry," John M. Klineberg, former president of Space Systems/Loral and a 25-year veteran of NASA, testified, "and that NASA's decision to discontinue rotorcraft research has left critical civil needs unaddressed."
Another traditional means of rotorcraft research and development--the U.S. military--has played less of a role in the field in recent years, and that will continue to fall off. Most of its procurement and development efforts involve refinements to existing aircraft in military fleets or the acquisition of new ones that are off-the-shelf platforms.
Of the major U.S. military procurements under way or planned today, only one--the multi-service Joint Heavy-Lift helicopter "will require the department to reinvest in vertical-lift technology," according to a recent Defense Dept. analysis of the U.S. vertical-lift industrial base (see Rotorcraft Report, page 8). All of the other procurements--the Navy's VXX presidential helicopter, the Army's armed reconnaissance and light utility helicopters and the Air Force's personnel recovery vehicle--"will not stimulate design innovation," according to officials involved in the analysis.
The analysis recommended several actions to "ensure innovation of the vertical lift industrial base" to support the capabilities needed for 21st century warfare. But little is being done to ensure that.
These reverses in U.S. R&D come as Europe continues to pursue a wide-range of aeronautics (and, specifically, rotorcraft) research and technology development initiatives under a coordinated funding and research plan called Framework Program Six.
Eurocopter and AgustaWestland have made major gains in U.S. markets in recent years. Most notable among them is AgustaWestland's win, as the airframe partner, of the VXX contract in January. But Eurocopter has steadily advanced its position in U.S. civil and para-public markets, winning contracts from many police units and the U.S. Border Patrol. It is aiming to do the same in military ones. That consortium, for instance, extended its role with the U.S. Coast Guard when that service opted for re-engining its fleet of 90-plus HH-65 Dolphins. A productive, focused and funded R&D program can only help their competitive position.
That is not simply a matter of transatlantic trade. Both China and India, the globe's most populous nations, are looking to expand their rotorcraft markets to take full advantage of the aircraft type's unique capabilities and lesser infrastructure requirements relative to those of fixed-wing fleets. They will come to U.S. or European manufacturers to do that. The battle for such international contracts can be skewed enough with arms-proliferation and diplomatic considerations without the added complication of a significant and growing gap in the technology incorporated in competing aircraft.
Hence, the anguish of advocates like Flater, who has likened the predicament to the drought of spirit afflicting the central character in T.S. Elliot's classic poem, "The Waste Land." Flater recently urged all U.S.-based AHS members to write their congressmen and senators as well as to those serving in key posts on the House and Senate committees that oversee NASA funding. Flater sent such letters to those members, including Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary and Related Agencies (NASA being among the "related agencies").
"As you know, rotorcraft perform essential roles in national and homeland security and in supporting the United States armed forces in times of conflict and in peace," Flater wrote Wolf. "In addition, helicopters save lives on the battlefield, perform disaster relief, and aid in supporting myriad police, firefighting, and hospital EMS roles. New technology is essential to provide high-payoff improvements in rotorcraft performance and safety. NASA's funding, expertise and facilities are critical in developing these technologies."
Flater is calling on Congress to reverse a $147.3 million cut in NASA's Vehicle Systems budget, which funds most civil rotorcraft research, to a total of $606.4 million for Fiscal 2006 and to allocate 20 percent of that (or $29.46 million) to basic rotorcraft research. That level of about $30 million a year is the historic average for rotorcraft research, he said. Bush has proposed cutting Vehicle Systems to $459.1 million in Fiscal 2006 and $373.6 million in Fiscal 2007; none of that money would be allocated for rotorcraft research.
There is some support for rotorcraft research and some bright spots.
Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a member of the House Science Committee space and aeronautics panel, has introduced The Aeronautics Research and Development Revitalization Act of 2005. That bill would restore NASA R&D funding to its Fiscal 2004 level of $1.057 billion and raise it 3 percent a year through Fiscal 2010. It also would direct NASA to pursue three "breakthrough R&D initiatives" over the next 10-20 years, one of which is "technologies to enable rotorcraft and other runway-independent air vehicles that are significantly safer, quieter and more environmentally compatible than current vehicles."
Separately, the Pentagon has directed the Air Force's Arnold Engineering Development Center to re-open the National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex at the NASA Ames Research Center near San Francisco "to maintain a critical national aerodynamic test capability used primarily for rotorcraft." NASA shuttered the facility two years ago because of budget cuts and a drop-off in usage. The complex includes a 40-ft.-high, 80-ft.-wide wind tunnel that can obtain air velocities of 240 kt. and an 80-ft.-wide, 120-ft.-high one that can reach 100 kt. Brig. Gen. David Stringer, commander of the Arnold Center, said re-opening the facility should take about a year, providing Congress concurs with the decision and funds the effort.
But for all practical purposes, prospects for R&D are dim. Every available federal dollar is being directed toward combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Agencies not directly involved in that effort, including NASA, have had their budget growth capped at 2 percent, which will force cuts since it is below the rate of inflation. Without a powerful champion on Capitol Hill who can tie rotorcraft research to a successful fight against terrorism, aspiring engineers like those at the University of Maryland will have to find their field of dreams elsewhere.