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Best of 2023: Rotor Tech Roundup

Posted 161 days ago ago by Admin

Nine companies made our ‘Best of Rotor Tech’ list this year. The accomplishments they racked up during 2023 are truly impressive. Let’s get right to them! In alphabetical order:

Airbus Helicopters: A Year of Firsts

Airbus Helicopters is using FlightLab demonstrators to test new technologies that could later equip its current and future eVTOLs, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft.

“In 2023 we celebrated the first flights of the second flying laboratory, the DisruptiveLab,” said Tomasz Krysinski, the company’s VP of research and innovation. The DisruptiveLab is a concept helicopter that is testing a new architecture to improve aircraft performance while reducing fuel consumption up to 50%, and having a fully parallel hybrid propulsion system that enables the battery to be recharged in-flight. It first flew in January 2023.

“In September 2023 Airbus Helicopters unveiled the PioneerLab, its new twin-engine technology demonstrator based on the H145 platform,” Krysinski said. “The PioneerLab aims to demonstrate a fuel reduction of up to 30% compared to a conventional H145, thanks to a hybrid electric propulsion system and aerodynamic improvements.” Meanwhile, the company’s FlightLab demonstrator successfully tested an electric flight control system in preparation of a new human machine interface (HMI) that will equip CityAirbus NextGen, Airbus' eVTOL prototype.

Airbus Helicopters’ VSR700 UAV was operationally tested from a ship at sea in May 2023. It performed 80 fully autonomous takeoffs and landings from a civilian ship’s helicopter deck. The company has also started building its CityAirbus NextGen 4-seater eVTOL, with a test flight planned for 2024.

ASU Wins "Coolest Thing Made in Idaho" Award

Aviation Specialties Unlimited (ASU)’s E3 Lightweight Aviation Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) are officially the "Coolest Thing Made in Idaho,” at least according to an award presented to them by the Idaho Manufacturing Alliance and Idaho Power.

The reason: ASU’s E3 Lightweight Aviation NVG from ASU is 30% lighter than legacy NVGs. It features state-of-the-art P-45 white phosphor image intensifier tubes and is compatible with legacy ANVIS mounts and battery packs. Weighing less “significantly decreasing neck strain on pilots and crew members,” said ASU President Joseph Estrera. “The aviation community has been requesting such a solution for years, and we are thrilled to bring it to them. We are gearing up to introduce these goggles to the industry in 2024."

Bell Flight: Pushing the Envelope

Bell Flight’s High-Speed Vertical Takeoff and Landing (HSVTOL) concept aircraft lifts off vertically like a tiltrotor. But once in flight, the HSVTOL folds back its rotors and switches to a jet-powered flight to achieve cruising speeds in excess of 400 knots.

At present, the HSVTOL is in the development phase. In September 2023, Bell began sled testing its HSVTOL technology at Holloman Air Force Base in Otero County, New Mexico,
It is using the Arnold Engineering Development Complex Holloman High Speed Test Track to test the folding rotor, integrated propulsion and flight control technologies at representative flight speeds.

In other news, Bell announced that the Bell 505 helicopter has become the first single-engine aircraft to fly with 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Meanwhile, “In October 2023, Bell received and installed GE Aerospace's T901 Improved Turbine Engine from the Army for its submission for the U.S. Army's Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) competition,” said Grady King, Bell Flight’s Director of FARA Sales & Strategy. “With the engine's arrival, Bell is prepared to move forward to the next stages of the FARA competition with the Bell 360 Invictus.”

Canadian UAVs Flying BVLOS Drones for Military

If you haven’t heard of Canadian UAVs yet, then take note of the name. Since 2019, this pioneering Canadian company has been licensed by Transport Canada to conduct Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) UAS/UAV flights in this country for both commercial and military purposes.

“The key component of this effort was the development of Sparrowhawk, a ground-based radar technology to assist in the detection of uncooperative aircraft,” said Jon Brydges, Canadian UAVs’ program manager - commercial. Using Sparrowhawk, the company’s UAV pilots are able to know what is within their airspace, even though it is beyond their ability to see it directly.

In 2023, “our greatest achievement has been the integration of the Textron Aerosonde 4.7 HQ VTOL UAV system into both Canadian UAVs’ and the Canadian military's operations within Canada,” Brydges said.

Joby Aviation Flies First Prototype Air Taxi

2023 was a good year for Joby Aviation, as it continued to develop its eVTOL four-passenger ‘air taxi’, with 2025 as its targeted commercial launch date.

“This year, we took a major step on our journey to scaled production with the rollout, and subsequent flight, of our first production prototype aircraft,” said company spokesperson Katie Pribyl. “While we have been flying full size aircraft since 2017 — and have now flown more than 30,000 miles with pre-production prototypes — this aircraft has been manufactured in accordance with a released design and built according to a complete implementation of a quality management system, marking an important step on the path to achieving the FAA type certification required to begin commercial passenger operations.”

What about convincing the FAA to certify the Joby Aviation air taxi for commercial service? “Stage 2 of the certification process is complete,” Pribyl replied. “In addition, the FAA has also accepted 84% of our Stage 3 certification plans, including the plan that covers our batteries and high-voltage power distribution.” The company also delivered an eVTOL air taxi to the U.S. Air Force under its $131 million AFWERX Agility Prime USAF contract. It plans to deliver a second eVTOL to them in 2024.

Leonardo Helicopters: Lots Happened in 2023

“The year 2023 has been extremely important to us both in the fields of existing and evolving programs as well as in new initiatives, both conventional and disruptive,” said Stefano Villanti, Leonardo Helicopters’ SVP sales & marketing. “We've introduced significant enhancements in the AW169 light intermediate helicopter following the certification of performance increase packages, new avionics software release and the skid configuration, a unique combination of advanced SAR modes with IFR single-pilot capability, and starting delivering the first batch of aircraft benefitting from the very latest capabilities introduced in the platform.”

Leonardo has also been busy with its AW09 next generation long light single-engine and AW249 combat helicopter programs. “The AW09 has acquired a new Safran engine with the PS4 going in the air and the PS5 aircraft expected to fly soon,” Villanti said. “The first two prototypes of the AW249 have successfully carried out tests, in Italy and abroad.”

In the fast rotorcraft category, “the AW609 achieved new program milestones with FAA and EASA pilots flying for the very first time and a certification basis released by the FAA as we continue to work towards final certification,” said Villanti. “The Technology Demonstrator of the EU Clean Sky 2 initiative's next generation civil tilt rotor (NGCTR) is also taking its final shape on assembly at our Cascina Costa di Samarate's Headquarter and the maiden flight is rapidly approaching.”

Sikorsky Continues to Demo Autonomous Flight

Sikorsky spent much of 2023 demonstrating its optionally piloted Black Hawk helicopter, which was flown uncrewed to highlight its MATRIX autonomy flight control system in action. The company has also partnered with Rain and its Wildfire Mission Autonomy System, with the goal of sending unmanned helicopter water bombers to attack wildfires as soon as they are detected.

 Sikorsky is also working with NASA to implement autonomous flight control into eVTOLs. In 2023, it partnered with GE Aerospace to build a 7,000-pound prototype of a MATRIX-controlled hybrid-electric VTOL demonstrator aircraft called ‘HEX’ using a 1MW-class generator.

Survey Copter Launches Configurable CAPA-X UAV

Airbus subsidiary Survey Copter has been making light tactical fixed-wing/rotary-wing UAVs since 1996.

“In March 2023 at SOFINS we launched CAPA-X, our new modular light tactical UAV designed to meet growing military and civilian needs in terms of missions, configurations, airworthiness regulations and sovereignty,” said Christophe Canguilhem, Survey Copter’s president and CEO. CAPA-X is a fixed-wing design that can also be configured for rotary flight. It is built using a modular model, allowing this UAV to be configured to adapt to all types of terrain and missions. Canguilhem said, “CAPA-X also offers two wing configurations (short and long) for missions requiring hovering at high cruising speeds or for increased flight autonomy.”

Vrginneers Releases ‘Improved’ Mixed Reality Apache Trainer

Vrgineers develops immersive training for helicopter pilots based on XTAL VR (virtual reality) and MR (mixed reality) headsets and aviation simulators.

“In 2022, we collaborated with Digiflight experts to develop the Apache trainer, which is our most significant achievement in the rotary-wing field,” said Vrgineers CEO Marek Polcak.
“This year we plan to present a significantly improved version using our latest mixed reality technology at I/ITSEC 2023 in Orlando.”

According to Polcak, Vrgineers’ Advanced Mixed Reality Apache Trainer (AMRAT) is a comprehensive and modern training solution for the world's most survivable multi-role attack helicopter. He said,  “With over 1,200 aircraft currently in service, our AMRAT will provide high-fidelity MR solutions that will enable pilots to train more efficiently. As for the upcoming year, we are currently developing a state-of-the-art Blackhawk simulator, which will come in different configurations including the pilot seat, co-pilot seat, or both seats together.”


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