A set of new U.S. Army contracts to helicopter makers, spurred by damage incurred by aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan, is intended to reinvigorate U.S. research and development of rotor technology.
Awarded to Boeing and Sikorsky under the Army Applied Aviation Directorate’s Rotor Durability program, the contracts initially aim to develop rotor blades — retrofittable to current aircraft — that can stand up better to sand and rain, be repaired quicker and easier and provide higher performance. But the longer-term goal is to lay the foundation for aerodynamic and flight control improvements that might make a swashplate unnecessary on conventional helicopters.
This brings money to a research area largely unfunded for nearly 10 years. "For the first time in years, the Defense Dept has decided to put money into rotor development," said Col. Steven Kihara, commander of the directorate. "That is a great thing because we kind of dried up a bit there."
The last U.S. rotor R&D initiative was the 2002-03 Variable Geometry Advanced Rotor Demonstration Program, which saw its funding wiped out by budget concerns before its work could start.
"Ever since that time, we’ve not made any investment at all" in applied or advanced-technology rotor research, said Ned Chase, chief of the directorate’s Platform Technology Div. In the meantime, the United Kingdom, with AgustaWestland, has fielded fourth-generation blades under the British Experimental Rotor Program and Eurocopter, with European funding, has pursued advanced blade designs.
Developing tougher, easier-to-repair, higher-performing retrofittable blades is the first step. The second is to combine today’s passive blades with active, on-blade devices that improve performance. "We’re looking for another knob to turn to get better performance out of our rotary-wing vehicles," Chase said. "We believe on-blade controls give us the greatest number of knobs."
Sikorsky won an $11.3-million contract to develop erosion-resistance and ice-protection capabilities for H-60 blades and improve their battle damage and repair through FY11. It will share half the contract costs. Boeing will do similar work on the H-47 under an $11.1-million contract, sharing 49 percent of costs. Under another $1.33-million contract, Boeing will use the AH-64 to define, design, fabricate, test and evaluate new slip-ring technology to permit power and commands to be sent to active blade-control devices and feedback to be sent back from them. It will share 11 percent of those costs.