How the helicopters of the future are shaping up

The Pentagon is looking ahead several decades toward future fleets of rotorcraft -- and working now to lay the plans for getting there.

Jon Skillings
Jon Skillings Director of copy editing
A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is director of copy editing at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing tech publications back when the web was just getting under way. He writes occasionally, on topics from GPS to James Bond.
Expertise language, grammar, usage Credentials 30 years experience at tech and consumer publications, print and online. Five years in the US Army as a translator (German and Polish).
3 min read
AVX Aircraft concept helicopter
This concept helicopter design from AVX Aircraft features dual coaxial main rotors, while at the rear it has not one but two ducted fans to provide the aircraft's propulsion. AVX Aircraft

You don't want to go flying into the future in yesterday's helicopters.

That's the gist of several projects under way at the Pentagon, which is looking ahead several decades toward future fleets of helicopters -- or more broadly, rotorcraft -- and working now to lay the plans for getting there.

It all starts with design. Most immediately, the Army has just awarded technology investment agreements with four aviation companies as an early step in the Defense Department's Future Vertical Lift initiative, which is meant to sketch out the route toward next-generation vertical-lift aircraft for all the branches of the US military for the next 25 to 40 years.

Starting now, those four companies -- the two better-known are Bell Helicopter (working with Lockheed Martin) and Sikorsky Aircraft (working with Boeing), the two lesser-known, AVX Aircraft and Karem Aircraft -- are cleared to start refining their initial designs, some shaping up more or less like traditional helicopters, some favoring tilt-rotor designs like the MV-22 Osprey. This stage, which is expected to take about nine months, is the risk-mitigating, drawing-board precursor to FVL known as the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator (JMR TD) program, Phase 1. (You probably already had a sense that bureaucracy would play a role here.)

Helicopters of the future: A brief history (pictures)

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If all goes well, the Army said in the first week of October, we could eventually see demonstrator aircraft built and flight-tested by late in the Pentagon's fiscal year 2017.

What could we see coming out of that effort? For sure, the aircraft will be fast -- the Sikorsky-Boeing team, for instance, is basing its design on Sikorsky's experimental X2 demonstrator helicopter, with its unconventional design of dual coaxial main rotors and a push propeller in the rear, which in 2010 flew at up to 250 knots, or roughly twice the average cruise speed of conventional helicopters. The other participants are aiming for similar feats of speed, along with other markers of high performance, carrying capacity, and fuel efficiency.

DARPA gets hypothetical about vertical-lift aircraft of the future. DARPA

While the Army is leading that charge, the always future-minded folks at DARPA have their own call out for cutting-edge designs for aircraft capable of vertical take-off and landing. DARPA's VTOL X-Plane program, expected to kick off in the coming weeks, is intended to inspire "innovative cross-pollination between the fixed-wing and rotary-wing worlds, with the goal of fostering radical improvements in VTOL flight."

The ambitious goals in the VTOL X-Plane program include top sustained flight speed of between 300 and 400 knots; hover efficiency of 75 percent (up from 60 percent); 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. The program is expected to run through early 2018, followed by a first demonstration flight some 42 months after the initial award.

One early hopeful for VTOL X-Plane success is Boeing, which recently featured its subscale, ducted-fan-powered Phantom Swift demonstrator on its Web site -- as an example of rapid prototyping, done with DARPA's competition in mind.

And then there's the Army's Aviation 2050 Vision; a video posted to YouTube in July puts more of a sci-fi, video game spin on the rotorcraft of tomorrow. "Future vertical lift aircraft," the video intones, "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."

In this vision, battlefield networks will be wide-reaching and highly capable, and will bridge the gap between man and machine: "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."

Closing out the video, William Lewis, head of the aviation directorate at the US Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center, credits the imagined technologies to the minds of "those who currently develop the aviation fleet, including warfighters, engineers, and scientists. But," he says, his voice swelling, "I need aviation visionaries."

Correction, Oct. 7 at 9:50 a.m. PT: The original version of this story wrongly paired up two teams of aircraft manufacturers. The actual pairings: Sikorsky Aircraft is working with Boeing, while Bell Helicopter is working with Lockheed Martin.