The question concerning the development of a new generation of Future Vertical Lift (FVL) rotorcraft for 2030 and beyond is a simple one. How radical and how rapid can the development of a new class of aircraft be given the poor state of research and development funding and the unlikely change in those circumstances over the next few years—exactly the time when the ground-breaking R&D needs to happen?
The concept of FVL (ex-Joint Multi Role, or JMR) revolves around the development of four classes of rotorcraft: light, medium, heavy and ultra-heavy. The proposal is for the family of platforms to be taken up across the services to reduce the cost of ownership over the long term. The decision has already been made to focus on the medium requirement, for that is where the largest market is—beginning with replacements for all the Sikorsky Black Hawks and Bell UH-1Ys of the U.S. Marine Corps.
U.S. Government investment in rotorcraft R&D has been widely acknowledged as lacking over the past couple of decades. On June 4, the Senate Armed Services committee reported in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2013:
“One area of the defense industrial base that has not seen significant new innovations is rotorcraft. Over the last decade, rotorcraft have been crucial in our war fighting operations The committee believes that among the various defense industrial base sectors, the preservation of integrated platform design teams and the use of agile prototyping is most needed in this sector. The committee observes that it has been over two decades since the last completely new DoD rotorcraft, the V-22 Osprey, was developed.”
The committee further went on to state that the their findings revealed that the DoD believes and understands “that increasing prototyping of advanced technology capabilities is a potential approach to be able to keep the technical expertise of the defense industrial base exercised in a reduced budgetary environment.”
However, one of the most worrying statements in the committee’s report was the continuing lack of engagement with industry by the services. It specifically cites that in spite of link between the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics—or USD (AT&L)—and the civil industry-led Vertical Lift Consortium (VLC), not enough headway has being made (the VLC comprises manufacturers, academia, suppliers and others involved in the rotorcraft industry).
As the report defines: “The VLC is an open and competitive forum that leverages all sectors of the vertical lift community to encourage teaming of innovative small business and non-traditional contractors with major defense firms and academia. The VLC is contracted with the DoD through the establishment of an Other Transaction Authority (OTA). The OTA allows the formation of competitive teams to rapidly develop and flight demonstrate innovative vertical lift technologies that address capability gaps identified in the DoD FVL Strategic Plan such as performance, survivability, and affordability. The committee understands the DoD is completing an overdue report on the VLC that was called for by the Committee on Armed Services of the House of Representatives last year that was due April 1, 2012.”
The report also draws attention to the fact that it is only the U.S. Army that is currently putting funds, albeit limited, behind the FVL initiative and that it has called for industry to participate in technology demonstration flights, which are not likely to happen until the late summer or fall. The committee voices concern that the lack of further funding will, in effect, lead to a fait accompli regarding the result of the technology demonstrator in that it could lead the way into the platform of record.
The potential of unmanned rotorcraft taking an even bigger role in future developments is getting greater. However, the overwhelming requirement seems to be for the greater engagement of all of the services toward finding a FVL platform. That must be matched with a cohesive effort, a common direction and the sharing of information if true progress is to be made and a new, revolutionary platform is to emerge during the early 2030s.
Look for the full version of this story, including DARPA’s X-Plane Rotorcraft program, at www.rotorandwing.com during the first week of July and in the July 2012 print edition of Rotor & Wing.
Related: Unmanned News