Sikorsky and Boeing’s joint multirole technology demonstrator for the U.S. Army, the SB>1 Defiant. Image courtesy of the U.S. Army
As the industry readies its experimental vertical-lift aircraft for U.S. Army evaluation, aviation officials have made clear they do not consider the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrators (JMR-TD) to be prototypes of future helicopters. “JMR-TD are not prototypes. They are an experiment of technologies,” said Maj. Gen. William Gayler, chief of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence (AACE), at a recent Army aviation forum hosted by the Association of the U.S. Army. “It’s going to inform what the final requirements will be. It’s really important … it’s the relationship of the attributes that are important to us.
“Industry is certainly trying to provide an option, but what industry has right now is not a prototype,” Gayler told Defense Daily, an R&WI sister publication, at the event. “It is going to be very informative to the final solution. I think we have to have that. We’ve got to have industry leaning forward. If industry listens to concepts and how we will fight and what combination of attributes will be important to us, it will only help them in the future.”
Gayler also said that FVL will not necessarily consist of one rotorcraft design scaled up and/or down to perform different missions, because certain airframe designs may not scale in the same direction.
“It is absolutely possible for us to envision different aircraft,” Gayler said. “We’re looking for the capability and the relationship of those attributes that provides the best capability in its class. I can envision the introduction of capability of several different variants that look distinctly different.”
Whether the Army would be able to martial the funding necessary to pursue two separate rotorcraft development and acquisition programs at once remains to be seen, Gayler said.
Affordability and efficiency has been a theme in the Army’s pursuit of future aircraft. If the service is going to replace its entire fleet in a timely fashion, it will need to be calculated.
“If your fleet is 2,135-strong, it is going to take continuous production, at almost max production rates, 40 years to turn that fleet over,” said Brig. Gen. Thomas Todd, who moderated a panel on science and technology for future aviation operations. “So we have to ask ourselves, ‘Do we really want to continue to put ourselves in that box?’ In order to succeed, we would need to be strategic as we move forward in developing capability.”
That, he continued, could entail buying fewer aircraft. If so, the aircraft would need to be all the more efficient.
The two designs officially participating in the technology demonstrator are Bell Helicopter’s V-280 and the SB>1 Defiant, from a Sikorsky-Boeing team. Bell’s advanced tiltrotor is built on experience manufacturing the V-22 Osprey, and the Defiant’s coaxial-rotor technology has been developed by Sikorsky through its X-2 and S-97 experimental aircraft. All three manufacturers had seats on Todd’s panel. Bell’s VP of Advanced Tiltrotor Systems, Keith Flail, noted that the company has learned lessons about affordability from participating in the FVL program. Bell completed construction of its V-280 last week.
“Those kinds of things — really looking at affordability and what affordability means to the department and to the Army — is something we have really been able to wrap into this,” he said of the V-280’s development process. “I don’t think a lot of folks at the beginning of JMR really thought that we would get that kind of learning out of this. We can get a lot of learning about technology, but there’s learning that is applying across the entire lifecycle and across the entire acquisition process.”
Sikorsky’s VP of innovations, Chris Van Buiten, said that its FVL offering is set to make its first flight next year. One focus for Van Buiten and Sikorsky Innovations is autonomy. He said the technology could have applications for the Army, however far down the road that might be.
“We want to put autonomy in the airplane to augment the group. Some call it ‘optimally piloted,’” Van Buiten said. “The crew is going to be there for most of the mission, but put a degree of autonomy to enable flight in degraded visual environments, high workload environments, enable manned/unmanned teaming by unloading the crew and letting the autonomy system take on a lot of the mission.”
Another focus for the company is intelligence. Van Buiten said Sikorsky is actively downloading gigs of data from its commercial fleet every night, and it’s then processed by “an increasingly capable supercomputer cluster.” This has led to increased availability and a decrease in maintenance.
“It’s very intense; it’s a whole new field,” he said of the technology. “And increasingly you’ll see it start to converge with the autonomy. All are enablers for Future Vertical Lift.”
The company has its Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA), an autonomous S-76, on a certification path. Van Buiten also mentioned it is building autonomous capabilities onto a Black Hawk demonstrator, which he said the industry and public would “see a lot more of next year.”
Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider, a smaller version of the SB>1 Defiant it has pitched for the JMR-TD program, has been flying for more than a year. One of the two existing prototypes suffered a hard landing in August, but the company said the mishap will not hinder the progress of the program, which is meant to validate the coaxial-rotor design. The S-97 suffered “substantial damage,” according to a National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report on the Aug. 2 accident in Jupiter, Fla. The preliminary report was published Aug. 11 and shows that both pilots on board suffered minor injuries when the aircraft went down on a clear day while hovering. Sikorsky plans to get its second S-97 airborne in the near future, and resume flight testing.
Brig. Gen. Frank Tate, director of Army Aviation for the Army Deputy Chief of Staff, G-3/5/7, is closely watching both teams’ flight testing and is eager to continue working with industry to achieve FVL. However, he said he is focused on the capability certain technologies offer rather than the design of any specific aircraft.
“We continue to look forward and work with industry to do relatively low-cost tech demonstrators, then demonstrate the validity of leap-ahead technologies that take the physics of vertical lift to a whole other level that we need to get to, to get after the capability gaps we have discussed,” Tate said.
“Then you close in on your actual requirements and put that out to industry, now knowing what is … achievable and get to more rapidly an actual product on the street,” he added. “We are focused on how we do our requirements process so we can do that much faster and do it in a way that is smart, that will get us what we want, that is not so constraining that you possibly throw away things that are achievable more quickly and are still a giant leap ahead.”
This article includes original reporting from R&WI sister publication Defense Daily.