Helicopters of the future: A brief history (pictures)

From the near-term Future Vertical Lift program to the seriously futuristic Aviation 2050 Vision, the Army has a lot riding on rotorcraft yet to come.

Jon Skillings
1 of 20 Sikorsky and Boeing image

Sikorsky-Boeing team thinks X2

Cue up Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" -- the next wave of helicopter designs are on their way.

But don't hit play just yet. For the most part, those futuristic choppers are still months and years away from anything but the drawing board. Still, the Pentagon's plans are being set in motion, and now's as good a time as any to do some gazing at the far horizon.

There are several different projects we'll be looking at in this slideshow. A key one is the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) initiative, and its precursor, the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) Technology Demonstrator program, both led by the US Army but intended to produce rotary-winged flying machines for use across all the military branches. Just this week, the Army's Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center issued awards to four companies under the JMR TD program to get them started on refining initial designs over the next nine months, with a hoped-for first flight of demonstrator aircraft late in the Pentagon's fiscal 2017.

One of the participants in the JMR TD initiative is this helicopter design, a joint concept put forward by a Sikorsky-Boeing tag team. It's based on Sikorsky's X2 technology, which in 2010 propelled a demonstrator helicopter to 250 knots in flight -- roughly twice the average cruise speed of conventional helicopters.

2 of 20 Sikorsky Aircraft

Sikorsky S-97 Raider concept

The Sikorsky-Boeing JMR TD proposal, like the X2 demonstrator before it, features the uncommon design elements of twinned, coaxial, counter-rotating main rotors on top and a push propeller at the tail. The goal is for the Sikorsky-Boeing aircraft to have a cruising speed of a very brisk 230 knots.

That X2 design also underlies Sikorsky's own planned S-97 Raider (depicted here), the first prototype of which as of late September was just going into final assembly. That prototype -- eventually there will be two of them -- will be 36 feet long and will weigh 11,000 pounds (versus 6,000 pounds for the X2 demonstrator). Sikorsky said it is eyeing 2015 to begin demonstrating the S-27 Raider's capabilities, including cruise speeds up to 220 knots and "dash speeds" of 240 knots or better, to potential customers, including the U.S. military.

3 of 20 Bell Helicopter

V-280 Valor concept

Another participant in the FVL/JMR initiative, and another tag team, is that of Bell Helicopter and Lockheed Martin, with the V-280 Valor concept (pictured here). That's right -- it's not a helicopter but rather a tilt-rotor design akin to that of the Bell-built V-22 Osprey, which has been in service for several years now. And that's just fine by the Army's FVL expectations, which are open to either type of rotary-winged aircraft.

We should clarify that JMR TD is what the military calls a science and technology program -- it's the conceptual phase. Although it is a first step toward the Future Vertical Lift family of aircraft, JMR isn't about building FVL prototypes specifically; it's about sounding out "advanced technologies and efficient configurations" to help "mitigate risks" for the eventual FVL program, the Army said in its statement this week.

"We must continue to push implementation of the FVL Strategic Plan which will positively impact Vertical Lift Aviation operations for the next 50-plus years," William Lewis, director of the AMRDEC's Aviation Development Directorate, said in that statement. "Absolutely, that is what JMR is all about. As we understand the demonstrated technologies and the opportunities for future technologies, that will feed the desired and reasonable capabilities and requirements for the potential FVL solutions."

4 of 20 Bell Helicopter

Envisioning the V-280 in action

Bell unveiled the V-280 Valor design in April of this year. It was only just in September that it partnered with Lockheed. The tilt-rotor technology demonstrator is intended to have a breathtaking -- for a rotary-winged aircraft -- cruising speed of 280 knots (about twice that of current rotary-winged aircraft), with a combat range of 500 to 800 nautical miles.

Whatever shape the FVL aircraft eventually takes, it'll need to be capable of multiple missions, in part "because it can be scaled," Maj. Gen. Anthony G. Crutchfield, then commander of the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence, is quoted as saying in an Army News Service story from April 2012. "It may be a medium variant, something that is the size of maybe a Black Hawk or an Apache is today, that can do the attack mission, or the assault/lift mission. I see the same aircraft scaled smaller that will be able to do the reconnaissance mission, similar to what a Kiowa Warrior does today."

Besides being faster and capable of lifting heavier loads than today's helicopters, the FVL aircraft would be expected to help the Army save money through better fuel economy and a common design that would allow components -- engine, drive train, cockpit fixtures, and so on -- to be swapped, even between aircraft of different sizes.

5 of 20 AVX Aircraft

AVX Aircraft concept helicopter

Like the Sikorsky-Boeing entrant, this design from Texas-based AVX Aircraft features dual coaxial main rotors, while at the rear it has not one but two ducted fans that would provide the helicopter's propulsion. Like the Osprey, it would have a large rear ramp that would ease the loading and unloading of cargo and troops. AVX said that the landing gear would be retractable, as would the attack variant's armaments, to allow for the most efficient aerodynamics.

6 of 20 AVX Aircraft

Troops dismounting

This artist's rendering from AVX shows how soldiers would dismount the aircraft to go about their missions on the ground. The AVX proposal calls for a helicopter that can hit 230 knots, and the company expects to build a 70 percent scale model as its technology demonstrator, according to an Aviation Week story in June.

Along with the Sikorsky, Bell, and AVX participants, there is a fourth that received a JMR TD agreement from the Army: Karem Aircraft. At this point in time, we don't have the specifics from Karem, which was a surprise winner in the Army announcement, but the company's Web site features tilt-rotor designs, including some for other Defense Department programs including Joint Heavy Lift (JHL) and Joint Future Theater Lift (JFTL).

7 of 20 US Marine Corps/Photo by Sgt. Michele Watson

Kaman K1200 in Afghanistan

In this tour of the future of helicopters, we now move beyond the FVL/JMR program and find -- as is often the case with technology -- that the future is already here, after a fashion.

Since November 2011, the US Marine Corps have been experimenting with the use of a pair of unmanned K-Max K-1200 helicopters on short-range cargo resupply missions to forward operating bases in Afghanistan -- that is, those hard to reach quickly and safely by traditional convoys on the ground. The Marines noted in June 2012, for instance, that while a convoy carrying food, water, and gear to Combat Outpost Rankel in Helmand province would take five hours, the UAV was able to get there in just 10 minutes.

As of April 2013, the pair had toted more than 3 million pounds of supplies in more than 30,000 flight hours, according to Lockheed Martin, which developed the aircraft with Kaman Aerospace.

8 of 20 U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Alan Gragg

MQ-8B Fire Scout

Meanwhile, at sea, the US Navy also has been making use of an unmanned helicopter, the Northrop Grumman-built MQ-8B Fire Scout. The cutting-edge aircraft has been in operational testing by the Navy since 2010, and the handful in service have already notched a number of accomplishments, including helping to spot drug smugglers in a deployment from Florida, carrying out overland intelligence and reconnaissance flights in the vicinity of Somalia, and logging more than 5,000 flight hours on operations in Afghanistan performing surveillance, seeking out IEDs, and delivering real-time video to troops on the ground. The 32-foot-long, 3,000-pound (with a full tank of gas) Fire Scout flies at around 85 knots and altitudes up to about 20,000 feet

9 of 20 Northrop Grumman/Photo by Chad Slattery

Fire Scout, version MQ-8C

Northrop Grumman is now getting ready to move on to its next generation of Fire Scout, the MQ-8C, which the company says will have "more than twice the endurance and three times the payload carrying capacity" of the current Fire Scout. The aerospace heavyweight is under contract with the Navy to start producing eight of as many as 30 of the MQ-8C variant for deployment starting in 2014.

10 of 20 Northrop Grumman/Photo by Stephen Potter

Fire Scout simulator

Fire Scout operators for the US Navy learn how to fly their machines on simulators at a training facility that opened at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla., in July 2012.

11 of 20 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Project Zero

Here's a quick digression before we get back to the Pentagon's plans because -- well, it doesn't get much more futuristic than AgustaWestland's Project Zero. This tilt-rotor aircraft was on display at the Paris Air Show this summer. A company rep said that the electric-powered machine does fly, but wouldn't say how far or how fast. The propellers can alternate between horizontal, pushing air downward for takeoff, and vertical, for forward flight; the propeller blade controls were designed to adjust each blade's pitch 18 times a second.

12 of 20 DARPA


Elsewhere in the Pentagon: Always on the lookout for some far-out ideas, DARPA has its own call out for futuristic vertical-lift aircraft. Shown here is the top half of DARPA's poster for its VTOL X-Plane program, with some hypothetical concept designs intended to inspire "innovative cross-pollination between the fixed-wing and rotary-wing worlds, with the goal of fostering radical improvements in VTOL flight." (So maybe now that Project Zero aircraft doesn't look quite so outlandish.)

There are four ambitious goals in the VTOL X-Plane program: top sustained flight speed of between 300 and 400 knots; hover efficiency of 75 percent (up from 60 percent); cruise efficiency, with a lift-to-drag ratio of at least 10 (up from 5 to 6); and the ability to carry a "useful load" of at least 40 percent of the aircraft’s projected gross weight of 10,000 to 12,000 pounds.

13 of 20 DARPA

More DARPA concepts

DARPA says that the VTOL X-Plane program will run between October of this year and February 2018, and that it hopes to see the first demonstration flight take place 42 months after the initial award. The total planned budget for the program: $130 million. This is the bottom half of the VTOL X-Plane program poster, which you can see in its entirety here.

14 of 20 Boeing/Screenshot by CNET

Boeing Phantom Swift

One aircraft maker that has its eye on the VTOL X-Plane program is Boeing, which recently featured its Phantom Swift demonstrator on its Web site -- as an example of rapid prototyping, done with DARPA's competition in mind. The subscale design addresses control issues that early ducted-fan models, according to Boeing. "What's new with this configuration is the combination of body fans and tilt-wing fans. That gives you incredible controllability for the aircraft," said Perry Ziegenbein, Phantom Swift’s chief engineer, in a Boeing video.

15 of 20 U.S. Army/Screenshot by CNET

Aviation 2050 Vision

And now let's look further out into the future, to about the middle of the 21st century. The images that follow come to you through the wishful-thinking lens of the Army's Aviation 2050 Vision video, posted to YouTube in July, which features video game-like military action. In introducing the video, William Lewis, director of AMRDEC's Aviation Development Directorate, says that the intent is to "stimulate thought" about potential airframes and technologies.

The voiceover echoes themes that run through the closer-to-reality Future Vertical Lift and VTOL X-Plane literature, ranging from higher performance to smarter technology to greater fuel efficiency: "Future vertical lift aircraft will fly further, faster, and perform in a wider range of environmental conditions while carrying heavier payloads. Aircraft may be manned or unmanned. Flight operations will be automated, and the pilot will assume more of a mission commander role."

16 of 20 U.S. Army/Screenshot by CNET

Quadcopter on the move

"Ground commanders," according to the Aviation 2050 Vision, "can push mission changes to aircraft as they're received and pilots can accept these updates with a voice command."

17 of 20 U.S. Army/Screenshot by CNET

Troops on board

The rotorcraft of the future will be more adept at getting troops and equipment on board and back off again and at getting them in and out of airfields and landing zones, according to the video: "Load times for equipment and personnel will be greatly reduced and will require limited assistance from air and ground crews. Troops on board aircraft receive mission updates while en route to objective area. Landing zone clearances will be automatically calculated and assets will be delivered faster."

18 of 20 U.S. Army/Screenshot by CNET

Tiltrotor on landing pad

In the Aviation 2050 Vision, situational awareness -- the vital working knowledge of where you are, where the enemy is, what shape everyone's in, and who's packing what weapons -- is vastly improved, as is communication between man and machine: "Platform nodes within the network will exchange real-time information between manned aircraft, unmanned aircraft, and ground units, providing a complete view of all assets of the battle space."

And also this: "Data will be fed to the global information grid allowing real-time reassessment and replanning in response to changing tactical situations. This information allows for coordination between cyber and human systems."

19 of 20 U.S. Army/Screenshot by CNET

Tiltrotor in the air

Inclement weather seems to be no obstacle for the vertical-lift aircraft of the future. Or perhaps it's just that the makers of the Aviation 2050 Vision prefer cloudy skies.

20 of 20 U.S. Army/Screenshot by CNET

Weapons systems - go

In the Aviation 2050 Vision video, one aircraft zips onto the screen to be evaporated by a shot aimed at a fellow aircraft, which then returns fire (with an unspecified futuristic weapon) as the voiceover intones, "Unmanned wingmen will defeat attackers." But self-sacrifice won't always be the order of the day: "Missiles will be defeated using advanced spoofing technologies. Improved aircraft construction technologies will increase survivability."

In closing out the 7-minute video, Lewis said that the forward-looking technologies depicted therein came "from the minds of those who currently develop the aviation fleet, including warfighters, engineers, and scientists." But that's just the starting point. Said Lewis, his voice swelling: "I need aviation visionaries."

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