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What is the Future of Helicopter Tech? Honestly, Nobody Knows

Written by on Friday, August 3rd, 2012

This rather unofficial helicopter week is drawing to a close. So far, we’ve gone in-depth into the mechanics of rotary aircraft and we’ve taken a look at two of the world’s most famous and successful choppers. We’ve got the past and the present all covered, so the only thing left is the future.

To be perfectly honest, the future of helicopter technology is up in the air. In the past two decades, helicopter engineers have been trying to reinvent the helicopter from scratch in order to get around those troublesome vibration problems. They’ve made some progress with truly unique and revolutionary helicopter designs.

Coaxial Rotors

The CH-47 Chinook features two rotors that spin in opposite directions. This cuts out the need for an anti-torque rear rotor, because the torque from each main rotor counteracts the other one. Modern engineers have tweaked this idea a bit by stacking two rotors on top of each other on a conventional helicopter fuselage.

This design provides a whole heap of benefits that old-fashioned helicopters just don’t have. For one, putting more power into the upper rotors allows a helicopter to carry a much larger payload without using as much power. They’re quieter, they can be much smaller than older helicopters, and they help counteract the dissymmetry of lift.

I won’t bore you with technical details about dissymmetry of lift, but the basic problem is that helicopter lift isn’t balanced because rotor blades create more lift on the left or right side of the chopper depending on which direction the blades are rotating. Having two rotors creatures dissymmetry on both the left and the right side, so they basically counteract each other.

Going Green

Car manufacturers aren’t the only people experimenting with fuel-efficient engines. Sikorsky Project Firefly has resulted in a light helicopter that runs entirely on electricity. It’s not quite as powerful as helicopters that run on combustion engines, but that’s to be expected for one of the first of its kind.

But just because these buy antibiotics in brazil choppers are weaker than their gas-guzzling cousins, don’t for one second think that they’re inferior. Not only is this new generation of helicopter much more environmentally friendly, but it also only needs a tiny fraction of the energy. Mark Miller, the vice president of Sikorsky research and engineering boasted, “Through the electrical conversion, propulsion efficiency of the aircraft has been increased roughly 300 percent from baseline. Electric propulsion also inherently simplifies the complexity of the propulsion system by reducing the quantity of moving parts, increasing reliability while reducing direct operating costs.”

The only wrench in their rotor is the fact that the prototype helicopter has a flight time of 15 minutes, which is enough time to accomplish diddly squat. Helicopter technology is already decades ahead of its time — it’s just waiting for battery technology to catch up.

Chopper-Plane Hybrids

When I said that they’re redesigning the helicopter, I really do mean that. Engineers have been tinkering with bizarre plane-helicopter hybrids that use upper helicopter rotors, but also have forward- or backward-facing propellors like a World War I fighter plane.

This Sikorsky X2 helicopter, for example, has a rear tail fin rotor. The X2 has a coaxial rotor design, so that tail rotor can provide a speed boost rather than anti-torque thrust.

Another oddball chopper is the Eurocopter X3, which can’t seem to figure out if it wants to be a helicopter or a plane. This aircraft is already turning heads with a top speed that is as much as 50% faster than conventional helicopters and lower vibration levels.

The Chopper of Tomorrow

So, what’s the future of the helicopter? We can’t say for sure. The world of rotor-based aviation is currently in a state of flux that could go down any number of cloudy paths. Whichever one of these designs catch on, it’s probably safe to say that the helicopters that we build 50 years from now will bear only a passing resemblance to the helicopters of today.

If you want advice about the world of military aviation, there’s no better people to turn to than men and women who have sat in the cockpit and flown some of the world’s most advanced aircraft. With over 50 current and ex-warfighters on call, Strike Fighter Consulting Inc. can give you access to up-to-date, first-hand technical and tactical expertise.

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