Army Taps Four Companies to Develop Future Rotorcraft
The Army has awarded technology investment agreements to four companies seeking to build the service’s next vertical-lift aircraft.
Bell Helicopter, Sikorsky Aircraft Co., AVX Aircraft Co. and relative unknown Karem Aircraft Inc., each will spend the next nine months refining their initial designs for the Army’s Joint Multirole Demonstrator program, which seeks to replace the Army’s entire fleet of helicopters with faster, more agile designs.
The Army’s Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., announced the agreements Oct. 2. The cooperative research and development agreements combine funding from AMRDEC, specifically its aviation directorate, with matching investment from the various companies over a six-year period, according to a spokesman for one of the companies who declined to be identified.
Company officials would not specify how much funding was associated with the agreements. An AMRDEC spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
"This is a critical risk-reducing effort for FVL," Maj. Gen. William Crosby, program executive officer for Army aviation, said in a prepared statement. "The operational benefits and changes will depend on the capabilities we can deliver to the war fighter with FVL. Improved speed, range, reliability and survivability are critical goals that we will target.”
The agreement is the first step to defining requirements for the joint multirole family of aircraft that will replace the Apache attack helicopter and the Blackhawk utility chopper in the mid-2030s. Industry teams will be given nine months to prepare and present details of their designs and manufacturing capabilities. A downselect will follow to determine which competitors will build operational demonstration aircraft for flight-testing in 2017.
The Army has split the technology demonstration program into phases so that at any time, the service can decide whether to eliminate competitors, said AVX spokesman Mike Cox. Though there is government funding attached to the first phase, Cox did not know how much AVX was awarded or whether funding would be equally distributed to the companies.
“We're going to take the proposal that we made to the Army, the designs and the whole nine yards, and we’re going to be refining it more. More detailed drawings, more tests, working it out so that we can reflect this is what our design would look like [and] what it would do in a final configuration," he said.
Eventually, the JMR program will result in a family of scalable helicopter designs that have common parts and systems. The Army is seeking a medium variant first, which will replace around 60 percent of its rotorcraft fleet.
JMR, interchangeably called future vertical lift, will also fulfill the Army’s desired performance parameters of operating at 6,000 feet on a 95-degree Fahrenheit day.
The contest has turned out to be one of big-versus-little when Bell Helicopter announced earlier this year it was teaming with Lockheed Martin. Sikorsky already had joined forces with Boeing to develop its offering. Those four companies represent the top echelon of military aircraft development in the world with a few exceptions. EADS North America was a frontrunner but withdrew from JMR to focus on the Army’s nearer-term effort to find an armed scout helicopter.
Those behemoth rotorcraft industry teams are going up against two darkhorse companies, neither of which has built an operational aircraft. They are Benbrook, Texas-based AVX aircraft and Karem Aircraft of Lake Forest, Calif.
The field is also divided along technological lines. Karem and the Bell-Lockheed team are betting on tiltrotor designs while the Sikorsky-Boeing duo and AVX are offering compound helicopters that sport coaxial rotors.
Karem is developing what it calls the Joint Heavy Lift aircraft that incorporates its “optimum speed tiltrotor” technology, which looks like a cargo-size aircraft with mid-wing tilting rotors.
Bell and Lockheed are teaming to produce the V-280 Valor, a follow-on to the V-22 Osprey. Unlike the Osprey, only the V-280’s rotors pivot up and down to allow vertical flight. This makes the aircraft more stable in hover mode and gives it better controllability than its predecessor, Bell officials said.
The Boeing-Sikorsky team is offering a version of Sikorsky’s X-2 demonstrator, which has coaxial main rotors and a “pusher” propeller at the rear. AVX’s design incorporates the same basic technological elements, but instead has two forward-facing ducted fans flanking its rear fuselage. That design allows for a rear drop-down ramp for troops and vehicles to exit.
The Boeing-Sikorsky team is further along in development of their scalable coaxial-rotor design. The X2 was developed into the S-97 Raider, Sikorsky’s armed aerial scout offering. A Raider prototype is scheduled for its first flight is 2014.
EADS North America was expected to propose a design based on Eurocopter’s X3 demonstrator, but dropped out of contention in May. The X3, a compound helicopter with a five-bladed main rotor and two short wings fitted with propellers, has flown at a top speed of 232 knots.