For three days a year, all aviation focus turns to the HAI Heli-Expo, where players throughout the helicopter industry reveal their latest innovations, developments and sales – this year, some big names unveiled big innovation.
The HAI Heli-Expo is the world’s largest helicopter trade show, and 2017 was the biggest yet – in terms of exhibitions and floor space. 2017 saw the show return to Dallas, Texas, where it was held in the 93,000 m2 Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. There were 731 exhibitors, and 62 helicopters on display, but with 17,778 attendees, visitor number were still down on the high of around 20,000 seen in 2015.
Nevertheless, the general feeling this year was one of optimism in the market. President and CEO of Helicopter Association International, Matt Zuccaro, attributed much of this to the stronger oil price. Off-shore oil operations is a major player in the helicopter industry. With the oil price having climbed from a low of US$23 a barrel to the current US$55 range, the industry, and the helicopter operators which service it, are seeing a recovery.
But it isn’t just the oil industry that is seeing growth; the rest of the industry is also looking strong. “We’re getting reports of a lot of flying from the different mission segments – corporate aviation is doing well, as is the air tourism industry, and law enforcement is maximising the use of aircraft to support ground units. So it is a good time, I think. The fact that the show is doing so well, in terms of exhibitors, is a good barometer is of the industry as a whole,” says Zuccaro.
According to Zuccaro, noise abatement is becoming a major challenge and a driving force in innovation, while the pilot and engineer shortage is initiating a movement towards UAV technology and automation. “This is a watershed moment in the industry. It’s going to change the way we do business. There are valuable technologies, and we are looking at it as a business opportunity for the helicopter industry. Many of the operators are already establishing themselves as unmanned vehicle operators to supplement their helicopter activity,” says Zuccaro.
The two biggest stories coming from the 2017 HAI Heli-Expo came from Bell and MD Helicopters. Bell unveiled their futuristic looking FCX-001, while MD Helicopters’ CEO Lynn Lilton described the MD 6XX as the company’s comeback story. Although present, big name manufacturers that were a little quitter, in terms of new developments this year, include Robinson and Leonardo.
After announcing the planned development of an all-new, high-performance, single-engine helicopter at HAI Heli-Expo 2016, MD Helicopters returned this year to unveil the MD 6XX. This next-generation, multi-mission helicopter is said to bring new technologies to power, performance and multi-mission capabilities across military, law enforcement, EMS/air medical, and special operations markets.
Building on the capabilities of the MD 600N, the MD 6XX features a number of newly designed structural elements and systems to enhance safety, reduced pilot workload, increased flexibility, and lower cost of ownership.
Featured Components & Enhancements include:
Genesys Aerosystems IDU-680s: These all glass primary displays offer 100% digital, open architecture for aircraft-independent installation and are field-upgradeable to add new functionality without replacing hardware components.
Macro-Blue Tactical Displays: Rugged, high definition displays engineered to meet DO-160 environmental and MIL-standards for contrast, sunlight readability, anti-reflective glass and NVIS Radiance
All-new S411 Main Rotor Blades by Helicopter Technology Company: Bonded blades with 3-section airfoil design to deliver more efficient, more aerodynamic operation, reduced noise profile and better auto-rotation.
4-Bladed Tail Rotor for enhanced performance and reduced noise signature. This with the extended composite tailboom and redesigned empennage is said to deliver over 40% more anti-torque as compared to NOTAR.
Digital 3-Axis Auto Pilot and IFR capability
Certified EMS/Air Medical Interior
Integrated weapons plank
Fly by wire controls
Radar cocoon for increased situational awareness in degraded visual environment conditions
Ability to launch and recover drones
The MD 6XX will come in a two crew, six passenger configuration, with a 5,500-lb MTOW, 3,200-lb Useful Load (500-lb jettisonable), and 500-nm range or 4.5-hour endurance. Cruise speed is expected to be 140 kt, with a maximum dash speed of 160 kt.
Bell’s show-stopper was the futuristic FCX-001. While not intended as a production helicopter, it exams future rotorcraft technologies, which Bell revealed with a full-scale mock-up.
The composite airframe is slightly longer and wider than a Bell 412, with a glass-enclosed cockpit and cabin poised on aerodynamic main gear legs topped with a slimmed-down tailcone and a tiny vertical stabilizer with no tail rotor. The five main rotor blades have morphing technology, allowing the last few feet of the blades to swing fore and aft to optimise rotor dynamics. The morphing blades also help control tip noise (Bell has applied for a patent on the design).
Anti-torque control of the FCX is vectored thrust through vanes in the tailboom, driven by electric motors for quieter operation, and eliminating the weight and complexity of tail rotor drive shafts, gearboxes and blades. The FCX would be powered by two thermal engines, but no specifics were given.
Flight controls are fly-by-wire. There is only space for one pilot, aided by artificial intelligence, to the extent that the FCX, if it were built, would be ‘pilot optional’. Cockpit displays would also be redundant, as the pilot would use augmented reality and a wearable head-up display to manage flight.
Behind the single pilot seat are two rows of four seats and augmented reality features – “for information, entertainment, or communication”. Quick configuration changes are aided by modular flooring.
The process that resulted in the FCX started with a challenge by Bell president and CEO Mitch Snyder, who wanted to see the ultimate form-follows-function helicopter get some attention on the design side, “to make helicopters look more beautiful”. The idea was to help Bell’s artistic experts learn more about engineering, and vice versa, by working together and sharing ideas.
Bell also announced the first delivery of the Bell 505 Jet Ranger X, to private operator Scott Urschel, owner of Pylon Aviation. This first Bell 505 is configured for utility operations and will perform in various missions including charter, tourism and utility.
Teaming up with DART Aerospace, Bell is developing an emergency flotation system (EFS), to come with a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC), for the Bell 505. The Transport Canada certification of the EFS is estimated for the beginning of 2018 and, shortly thereafter, applications will be submitted for FAA and EASA certification. The 505 has a cruise speed of 125 kt, range of 340 nm and a useful load of 680 kg.
Airbus, in partnership with DCNS, is making steady progress with the VSR700 unmanned helicopter VTOL system. The aircraft is derived from the Cabri G2. The diesel powered VSR700 has a 700 kg MTOW, will have a ten-hour endurance and carry a 100 kg payload.
The first quarter of this year will see the first autonomous flight on a modified Cabri G2 with a safety pilot. Airbus expects that the first flight without the safety pilot to take place before the end of 2017. Next year will mark the first VSR700 prototype flight tests.
Military certification and the initial serial production of the VSR700 is expected to begin in 2019 with the first deliveries slated for 2020.
On display at the Airbus stand were a range of their light singles and twins: the H125, H130, H135, and the H145. Furthermore, they announced orders for approximately 60 helicopters at the show.
Absent from the show floor was the H175, which has recently seen its maximum takeoff weight increased to 7.8 tonnes, increasing payload by 300 kg or allowing an extra 40 nm range.
Heli-Expo 2017 could almost be mistaken for a military exhibition, given the number of ex-US Army UH-60A/L Black Hawks on display.
Among those previously revealed was a new contender – the Acehawk from Global Aviation Solutions (GAS), which is equipped with the Garmin G5000H-based avionics suite and Avalex Technologies cockpit management unit (CMU).
The company claims the Acehawk is the only day/night VFR/IFR, NextGen/Single European Sky compliant retrofit solution available on the market today for UH-60A/Ls and S-70s. STC certification is expected by the second quarter of 2018.
The Acehawk cockpit features four 12-inch, 4K displays and two touchscreen controllers; Panoramic View and Synthetic Vision Technology; and the option to integrate third party radios, sensors and other mission equipment without affecting the G5000H core software.
News at Robinson is that Donaldson Aerospace & Defense has developed the first Inlet Barrier Filter (IBF) for the R66 Turbine helicopter. Showcased at HAI, the filter was certified by the FAA in late February, and is available as a certified retrofit or as a factory option.
Robinson asked Donaldson to help modify and improve the R66’s filter system after receiving customer requests for improved engine protection. The R66 IBF is approved for year-round operations, and designed to reduce operating costs and enable longer engine life. It features a flexible filter design that stores flat but flexes during installation to provide 320 degrees of coverage, and improved drive shaft protection.
HONEYWELL MARKET REPORT
Although many reports from HAI spoke of optimism in the industry, Honeywell’s report indicates the market has not fully recovered from an economic slowdown and the volatility in the oil and gas-related markets, and so has a cautious outlook for the near-term. In its nineteenth annual Turbine-Powered Civil Helicopter Purchase Outlook, Honeywell forecasts 3,900 to 4,400 civilian-use helicopters will be delivered from 2017 to 2021, roughly 400 helicopters lower than the 2016 five-year forecast.
“The current global economic situation is causing fleet managers to evaluate new helicopter purchases closely, and that’s why we’re seeing a more cautious five-year demand projection compared with previous years,” said Ben Driggs, president, Americas, Honeywell Aerospace.
However, helicopter fleet utilisation in the past 12 months generally increased, compared with last year. Over the next 12 months, usage rates are expected to improve significantly in North America and Latin America, but at a reduced rate in Europe.
The Middle East and Africa region had the second-highest new purchase rate, but this was still eight percent lower compared with 2016 survey results.
Close to 80 per cent of planned new helicopter purchases are intermediate and medium twin-engine models.