Joint Multi-Role Rotorcraft Program Moving Forward (UPDATED)
This is part 4 of a 6-part series covering the Army’s modernization priorities leading up to the Association of the United States Army’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Oct. 8-10. Today’s priority: Future Vertical Lift.
The Army is pursuing plans to develop a family of future vertical lift aircraft that will be able to perform a variety of mission sets. Key to that effort is a technology maturation program which has Bell and a Sikorsky-Boeing team designing new aircraft.
“We’re looking at basically going beyond the helicopter capabilities that we have today,” said Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville. “We want increased range. We want increased speed. We want increased lethality.”
While the United States’ helicopter inventory includes some of the most powerful rotorcraft in the world, including the Apache, Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters, the service is now looking for a revolutionary step forward as it begins to think about the future of aviation, he said during remarks at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Army Science and Technology Conference in Washington, D.C.
The service has noted that it is interested in creating a family of systems that include a variety of aircraft sizes — from small to ultra-large — that can perform multiple missions from scout to attack to lift.
However, while the service wants cutting-edge technologies, it doesn’t want to break the bank when it comes time to write the check for them, McConville said.
“Quite frankly, we’re being very demanding as we talk to industry — cost matters,” he said. The service wants the aircraft to be delivered at a similar price tag to what it’s paying for aircraft today.
“As a kid, my parents bought a black-and-white TV and it cost so much money,” he said. “Now we’re getting a brand new smart TV with all this stuff on it” for the same price.
“We’re telling industry, ‘If you can’t do it, let us know,’” he said. “We don’t have the resources to spend an extraordinary amount for future vertical lift.”
For years, the Army has been pursuing a technology maturation program called the joint multi-role demonstrator, McConville noted.
Under JMR, “industry is providing demonstrations to allow us … to break the physics barriers that we have with conventional helicopters,” he said.
Bell has been flying its V-280 Valor aircraft since December 2017. A Sikorsky-Boeing team is developing the SB-1 Defiant, which company executives have said will fly by the end of this year.
Thomas Russell, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for research and technology, said the JMR program — which also encompasses efforts with other vendors to examine tiltrotor design and aircraft body shapes — is making significant progress and the service is learning a great deal.
“We’re just trying to bring the demonstrations to a point where we have the technology matured sufficiently so we can start making requirement generations and then make decisions in the [analysis of alternatives] and the programs of record,” he told National Defense during an interview.
Jeffrey Schloesser, executive vice president of strategic pursuits at Bell, said the V-280 was making signifcant progress during flight tests. The company has so far flown in excess of 195 knots and the aircraft has been in the air for about 50 hours. The rotors have turned for close to 133 hours, he added.
“What we’re looking forward to now is continuing to demonstrate the agility of the aircraft,” he said during an interview at Bell’s Advanced Vertical Lift Center in Arlington, Virginia. “We’ve done pirouettes down the runway and stuff like that.”
After collecting more data, Bell plans to focus on reaching the aircraft’s full cruise speed of 280 knots, Schloesser said. That milestone should be achieved sometime within the next few months, he added.
By early 2019, the company intends to demonstrate the ability of the Valor to operate autonomously, he said.
“Autonomy is something that’s key to us,” he said. Bell plans to start off with autonomous takeoff and landing and then move on to waypoint navigation and sense and avoid.
Bell also plans to move the aircraft — which is based on technology developed for the V-22 Osprey — from Amarillo, Texas, where it was built and where the company manufacturers other platforms such as the Osprey, to Arlington, Texas, Schloesser added.
Amarillo “is a wonderful place to assemble aircraft … [but] during the winter it tends to be fairly cold, very windy, and not optimum for … flight tests,” he said. Arlington is also a good choice because it is within the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where the company is headquartered. That makes it more accessible for military customers and parties interested in seeing the aircraft up close, he added.
Having flown for nearly a year, the Bell team will relatively soon finish testing with the Army, Schloesser said. “It’s coming to the point where they want us to finish off these parameters, which would be to achieve our speed and the agility.”
Because the Defiant has not yet flown, that will likely mean that Bell will conclude its efforts first, he said.
“I would wish for a little bit closer similarity in the flight tests between the two,” he said. “We’ve assembled a world-class team of aeronautical engineers, software engineers, flight control engineers, and people who know how to put together that capability. If you have a period of time in which you no longer are flying, or you’re no longer developing this capability, then those people have to go someplace.”
Bell is facing what it calls a “bathtub” of skilled workers who may soon not have much to do, he added. To mitigate that, the company is in talks with the Army to try to facilitate some continued flight tests.
Rich Koucheravy, Sikorsky’s business development director for future vertical lift, said while the Defiant has yet to fly, it is getting close.
The Sikorsky-Boeing team estimates the aircraft’s build will be complete within the next couple of months, he said. It will go into ground runs to support first flight by the end of the year, he added.
Defiant is nearly complete except for the installation of rotor blades which will be delivered soon from where they are being manufactured in Mesa, Arizona. Blades will also be installed on a powertrain system test bed, or PSTB, system that is meant to drive risk out of the platform, he noted.
“The PSTB is, for all intents and purposes, … the Defiant,” Koucheravy said. “It doesn’t have landing gear because rather than an aircraft frame it has an iron frame strapped to the ground.” Almost every system is replicated in the test bed.
The next major milestone will be having the full configuration of the aircraft test bed. Those efforts were slated for the September-October timeframe, he said.
“What we would like to do as a technique is to get some early learning done on the PSTB to remove as much risk as possible before we begin ground runs and flying the aircraft,” he said. That will allow “us to do those things on the test stand and to develop what we call our ‘do not exceed’ criteria on certain components and to check our configuration in full operation before we do that same thing on the aircraft.”
Once the Defiant is ready, the Sikorsky-Boeing team plans to fly it for 115 hours over a 14-month test program, he said. However, there are ways to accelerate that, he noted.
The Sikorsky-Boeing team is not worried that the Bell platform is already flying, Koucheravy said.
“What Bell is doing is what Bell is doing,” he said. “What we are doing is developing an aircraft that really has never flown before. This configuration, this compound coaxial offset aircraft with this pusher propeller is something new. And we’re really measuring ourselves against ourselves.”
The team is focused on proving the scalability of the X2 technology which originally debuted with the Sikorsky S-97 Raider, he said.
Randy Rotte, director of cargo helicopter and future vertical lift programs at Boeing, said the point of the JMR program is to provide useful data and mature technology for the Army within a certain timeframe to inform future vertical lift requirements.
“Both Bell and the Sikorsky-Boeing team are on track to be able to provide that data in time for them,” he said. “Hats off to Bell for doing what they’re doing but they’re flying a different configuration and obviously a different schedule than we are. I think as long as the Army gets the information they need to then move forward I think it’s a win for both.”
Russell, from the Army research and technology office, said he did not believe the Defiant delays were problematic. “The delays have not impacted the current programs or thoughts of how the S&T programs will transition” into programs of record, he said.
While the JMR project is focused on a medium-sized platform, also known as capability set three, the Army has indicated that it has plans to potentially field a capability set one aircraft.
Over the summer, the service released a draft solicitation on FedBizOpps for a future attack reconnaissance aircraft prototype, also known as FARA, that would be the “knife fighter” of future Army aviation capabilities.
“The Army currently lacks the ability to conduct armed reconnaissance, light attack and security with improved standoff and lethal and nonlethal capabilities with a platform sized to hide in radar clutter and for the urban canyons of megacities,” the document said. “To close this gap, the Army envisions an optionally manned, next-generation rotorcraft with attributes of reduced cognitive workload, increased operational tempo through ultra-reliable designs and extended maintenance-free periods, and advanced teaming and autonomous capabilities,” it added.
The platform would be the center piece of an integrated air-defense systems breeching team and would provide freedom of maneuver in a multi-domain battle, the document said.
The Army released a request for proposals for FARA in early October. Submissions from industry are due in December.
While Schloesser would not divulge details about what Bell could offer for the effort, he said the company was very interested in it and that it had already had discussions with Army leaders.
“You should expect Bell to have … a lot of capability up its sleeves and lots of great ideas,” he said.
Tim Malia, Sikorsky’s director of future vertical lift light, said the company’s S-97 Raider demonstrator — which is based on the company’s X2 technology — would fit the bill for FARA. While Raider may be on the smaller side for the effort, the company has the ability to easily scale, he said.
“What we would be doing for FARA is in between [Raider and Defiant] … but much, much closer to the Raider size,” he said. “What we’re showing is that we can do anything. We can scale anything inside of that band of X2.”
Last year, flight testing on the Raider was halted after the aircraft experienced a “hard landing.” However, a second prototype is up and running, he noted.
The company has hit each of its flight test objectives this year, he said. In early October, Sikorsky announced that the Raider had exceeded flight speeds of more than 200 knots.
Update: This article has been updated to reflect new information about the FARA request for proposals and the Raider's flight speed.