Commercial, Military, Products

Panel: Google, Apple Engineers Got Nothing On Technology Challenges of the Helicopter Industry

By By Andrew Parker, Editor-in-Chief | July 1, 2013

A group of six high-ranking officials from AgustaWestland, Bell Helicopter, Boeing, Eurocopter, Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky took part in a CEO panel on May 21 during the American Helicopter Society (AHS) International’s Forum 69 in Phoenix, Ariz.

Rotor & Wing International Bureau Chief Andrew Drwiega moderated the panel, which included incoming (as of July 1) chairman of the AHS board of directors John Garrison, who is president and CEO of Bell Helicopter, and incoming AHS secretary/treasurer Mick Maurer, president of Sikorsky Aircraft. Rounding out the group were James Wang, AgustaWestland vice president of research and technology; Leanne Caret, vice president of vertical lift for Boeing; Yves Favennec, vice president of research for Eurocopter; and Dan Schultz, vice president of ship and aviation systems for Lockheed Martin.

While only two of the six panelists were actual CEOs (vs. four out of six in the previous year’s panel), the discussion offered a glimpse into the challenges that rotorcraft OEMs face when tackling engineering problems and recruiting young minds into the industry. It also provided a few unscripted and light-hearted moments, such as a Garrison’s contention that Google and Apple engineers should come to the helicopter industry if they want a real challenge, together with the panel’s conclusion that late-night pizza plays a major role in the development of new technologies.


Since last year the rotorcraft industry has lost two of its more dynamic “personalities” that were present at AHS Forum 68 in 2012 – recently departed Eurocopter CEO Lutz Bertling and former Sikorsky President Jeff Pino, who retired a week after appearing at last year’s forum. One head-of-industry absent from the panel – notable because the company has headquarters in nearby Mesa – was MD Helicopters CEO Lynn Tilton. Robinson President & CEO Kurt Robinson was in Phoenix the following day to accept an AHS award on behalf of his father, founder Frank Robinson, but did not participate in the panel.

Cameron Robertson, co-lead engineer for AeroVelo, which is involved with the Sikorsky-sponsored $250,000 Human-Powered Helicopter competition run by AHS, asked a question about having to “do more with less” in today’s demanding environments and financially-constrained times, which was the general theme of Forum 69. “What is your best approach to inspire passion in your own engineers?” he asked.

Maurer replied that besides the development of the hardware, two things are going to drive the future: “Process change – we heard about how long it takes to develop products – but more importantly than that is anything to do with data and how we process it. I’ve seen some statistics where the amount of data that’s now in the world today is something like 10 million times what it was 10 years ago. The things that we can do with that data, whether it’s for design or for understanding how equipment operates, or for the things we can do to reduce direct operating costs (DOCs) because we understand the condition of the equipment and ways to operate and maintain it better. We may have some very revolutionary changes in overall life-cycle costs that could advance the industry.”

The Sikorsky president added that DOCs are something “that we don’t talk about every day, and it isn’t as straightforward and maybe not as sexy as some of the hardware that I think is just going to be revolutionary in our industry, and we’re probably going to lag a little bit behind folks like Google, or whatever, but you’re going to see a big change in our industry as a result of that.”

Garrison interjected that passion is “what this industry’s all about.” In order to build interest among the top engineering minds out there, the rotorcraft industry needs “to be more forceful,” he insisted. “Mick said it, we may lose out to Google. I get so blessed irritated on that! So are you smart enough to work for Google? How hard is it to do a Google algorithm vs. the flight control logic for a tiltrotor? Come on, what’s more tough?” Garrison exclaimed, to a round of applause from the audience. “It’s not just about the flight. Take a bar of titanium and create an optical tolerance gear that works every single time and can run without lubrication for an hour. That’s pretty cool.”

Tying in all these elements is important for the industry, Garrison continued, “so that we don’t lose the best and the brightest to algorithm manufacturers called Google and gadget manufacturers called Apple. I think we can bring those minds to the technology challenges that we have here.”

The Bell CEO agreed that one drawback when trying to recruit engineers into the helicopter industry – other than the higher salaries being offered at the leading IT companies, as one astute conference attendee noted after the panel – is the time it takes to develop technology. “They’ll tell you every single time that ‘I can move quickly in those spaces.’ It’s kind of like watching paint dry on our side of the fence. So we need to do a better job of moving along faster, to get that passion, because people do get frustrated with the pace, which is awful slow.”

AgustaWestland’s James Wang shared some details regarding the development process for Project Zero, the manufacturer’s electric tiltrotor aircraft that was unveiled in March after being kept under wraps. Project Zero is “definitely a seed, it’s not something driven by the customer, not something that was requested,” Wang explained. “Many people ask: Is Project Zero a product? The answer is no. Unlike the [Sikorsky] X2, which became the S-97 Raider, Project Zero is truly a technology incubator, to let the engineer be creative,” he continued.

The technology demonstrator was borne out of the “need to inspire the next generation and the current generation,” Wang said, in order to “let the engineer free to do what they do best, and come up with something imaginative. If we keep holding our engineers in handcuffs, and tell them to only do the product and only what we can make a profit from, we’ll always be limited to the current product and we will not have the next breakthrough.”

Helicopter OEMs, suppliers and the engineering community need to “look into and invest in the future. That’s why AgustaWestland [designed and built] Project Zero – to give the engineers a chance to vent their energy, their passion, and inspire the rest of the people.” AgustaWestland began developing the electric tiltrotor concept in 2010, which Wang admitted was a “pretty difficult sell to my bosses: ‘I need a few million just for a demonstrator, just to be innovative,’ but also something to inspire engineers and something that will serve as a show piece for the company’s image and branding.” After about a week, the CEO told Wang to move forward with the project. But then he had to gather his own team outside of the manufacturer’s group of engineers, telling them: “[AgustaWestland] ‘can only pay you for eight hours a day, no more, but I’ll feed you pizza every night.’ And they all said yes, sign me up. So that’s how we started.”

Later in the discussion, Garrison added that, “pizza also works great with crew chiefs,” because if you’d like to find out how the aircraft really performs, “sit down with the crew chiefs and they’ll tell you everything you need to know. It’s a great feedback mechanism.”

Nature of the Relationship

Garrison said that the basis of agreements with the U.S. military needs to change if the government continues to reduce funding available for R&D. “If we’re putting in three dollars out of four, the contract terms are going to be different,” he noted, pointing specifically to the Joint Multi-Role (JMR), the precursor to Future Vertical Lift (FVL), as well as the recent Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) competition. He said that pressure is also on OEM decision makers from within their own organizations. Boards of directors want to know what they are getting for committing millions of dollars.

Schultz added that senior leaders in the U.S. government have spoken specifically about “affordability” in recent months. “You’re seeing a real drive by our government counterparts to have affordable RFPs that are hitting the street,” he said.

Maurer noted that the military seems to be narrowing its requirements and the process for recent bids, including with U.S. Air Force Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) program. “We’ve seen it on the Presidential [helicopter replacement program] as well, it’s very different this time around. I think they’re going to have to maybe – I don’t want to say lower their expectations – but certainly change their practices from before.”

When asked by Rotor & Wing’s Drwiega about reports that the AAS technology demonstrations were not what the Army was looking for and whether that sent a confusing message, Maurer responded that helicopter OEMs “are not getting a very clear picture of exactly what the requirements are, and exactly how this competition is going to unfold.”

Garrison agreed. “It’s clearly been confusing,” he said, “but the Army’s asked for some time, and at the end of the day, this is a very difficult budgetary environment and priorities have to be laid out. Just like we have to prioritize what we make our investments in this resource-constrained environment, they’re going to have to prioritize where they’re going to make their investments. That’s going to drive a big part of where the decision falls out.”

Embracing New Thinkers

Responding to a question about finding new operators and applications for vertical lift, Caret noted that “it goes back to something that John [Garrison] highlighted a couple questions ago, which is: What is the problem we’re trying to solve? I’ll frame it a little differently. What are the jobs that need to be done?” Caret said that question is really important because it “changes our mindset in terms of what are the different problems out in the world globally, not necessarily tied to the traditional aspects of vertical lift that we’re used to supporting.”

As the rotorcraft industry continues to “embrace new thinkers,” she continued, “we’re going to create that enthusiasm and that energy, and folks are going to think of the art of the possible that we can’t [see] because we’re so bogged down in what we have always seen the world to be.” Forcing that conversation and then understanding where those areas of opportunity are is key, according to Caret.

Maurer added that the U.S. military’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq “has done anything but validate or expand the need for rotorcraft... The Global War on Terror and that experience is only going to keep pushing in the direction of more, not less, in terms of maybe not technically a new customer, but new applications with some of the bigger customers. I think that’s going to drive some real expansion, and not just in the U.S. military.”

Garrison said that he’s “very bullish” on the long-term global prospects for the helicopter industry. “If you look in the markets in the world – take EMS, there’s really only two developed markets, North America and Europe. There’s nothing in India, China or South America. Those are huge growth opportunities. Offshore oil and gas, it’s going to continue to grow. When you look at some of the BRIC countries, and the evolution of the industry in those countries, there’s huge opportunity.” Putting his “AHS hat” on, Garrison pointed out that the international part of “AHS International is incredibly important. We have to be viewed as an international society for rotorcraft, not just the American Helicopter Society. So it takes all of us to think a little different, as we really want to be the international technical society for rotorcraft.”

Eurocopter’s Favennec noted that there are various regulations and operating conditions that accompany the entry into new markets. “I think that the new markets we were talking about, they are there, but we just – when I say ‘just,’ it’s not simple – we just have to replicate it in another country and environment, and that’s the challenge.”

Lockheed Martin’s Schultz talked about sensors currently being developed on a flying testbed aircraft based on a Bell Huey that’s based in Owego, N.Y. in response to a question about the safety record in the helicopter EMS sector.

“We’ve really started looking at passive millimeter wave, to be able to see through clouds, integrating FLIR and Lidar,” Schultz said. “Recent indications are that they’re looking at an active seeker out there, more of a Lidar approach, so DVE (degraded visual environments) is critical to rotary wing. I think if you see accidents, especially when you’ve lost situational awareness, the problem is being able to get down through that last 50 feet and contact the ground.”

The future solution to this problem “has got to be some sort of integrated sensor that puts everything in the cockpit so the pilot can see through [hazards] and on a display that he doesn’t have to go heads-down for,” Schultz added.

Dick Spivey, director of the U.S. Army’s Aeroflightdynamics Directorate (AFDD), told the panel that in his 53 years in the helicopter business, he’s “seen a awful lot of commercial and military products come and go, mostly come but some go.” He echoed something that members of the panel spoke about, the industry needs “a revolution in direct operating costs.” A revolution in something that’s not sexy, he explained.

“Why are we proud of a helicopter that has a 5,000-hour TBO (time between overhauls) on a transmission when it ought to be 20,000 hours? It’s the same thing with the engine and the rotor system. Now I know it’s going to be more expensive, and I know it’s going to take longer to develop it, but if I as a customer can get an aircraft that I don’t have to worry about carrying 20 people around with me to keep it fixed, then I can project making a profit.”

The same concept applies to the military, Spivey continued. “Right now, 75 percent of the life-cycle costs of your helicopter is maintenance and operational cost,” he said.

It takes only 25 percent to develop and build the helicopter, “but 75 percent of the cost is what happens after that. We really need to concentrate on our Achilles heel. We will never be anything but a niche market if we don’t drive the operational costs down. It’s a challenge, but it’s where we’re headed.”

Related: Technology News

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