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U.S. Army envisions the helicopter of the future

And by future, we're talking 2030. Let's just hope the planners, builders, and budgeteers keep an open mind to how technology evolves over the next two decades.

Joint Multi-Role Demonstrator aircraft concept
Rotors and wings: This is one concept the Army has concocted for its vertical-lift aircraft of the future.
U.S. Army

The Army of today is making plans for the helicopter of tomorrow -- fast, tough, and even semi-autonomous.

And with the Pentagon's target date of 2030 to begin fielding a fleet of these next-generation vertical-lift aircraft, one can only hope that the Army won't be overly beholden to designs based on the futuristic blueprints of today.

The term "vertical lift" is key here: the aircraft that eventually goes into the service would use rotors for lift, in helicopter fashion, but might also include wings in the manner of the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey or in an even more radical design.

Right now, the mission is all about setting the direction for the Joint Multi-Role Demonstrator program, an Army-led effort that will encompass input from a range of agencies and military services, from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to the Coast Guard, the Special Operations Command, and even NASA. And the areas in which the JMR program is seeking improvements are just as sweeping: it's looking ahead to "vastly improved" avionics, electronics, range, speed, propulsion, survivability, operating density altitudes, and payload capacity.

"We're trying to create a vision," Ned Chase, the science and technology lead for the JMR Technology Demonstrator Program, said in one of a couple of recent Army News Service posts.

More specifically, here are some of the targets:

Building a helicopter able to sustain speeds in excess of 170 knots, achieve an overall combat range greater than 800 kilometers (combat radius of 424 kilometers) and hover with a full combat load under high/hot conditions (altitudes of 6,000 feet and 95 degrees F) are among the many capabilities sought after for the JMR.

And in keeping with the "multi-role" part of its name, it would be ready to serve in a variety of ways, from attack configurations to cargo, medevac, search and rescue, antisubmarine warfare, and other setups.

Joint Multi-Role Demonstrator aircraft concept
Homage to the Osprey: This concept has tilt-rotors and a split tail. U.S. Army

The Army also posits that the next-generation helicopter could be "optionally manned" -- that is, it would be capable of autonomous flight to one degree or another. A key issue to deal with will be the volume of data coming into the cockpit, from onboard sensors and nearby unmanned aircraft, without overwhelming human pilots and crew.

If all goes according to plan, the initial demonstrator models would be designed starting in 2013, and a first flight would happen in 2017.

Right now, the "clean-sheet design" goal isn't to determine specific technologies, but rather to get advice from various industry partners about what might be possible. "We don't want to be bound by what is out there today. The hardware and software solutions we seek may be similar or radically different than what exists today," Ray Wall, chief of the Systems Integration Division in the Army's Aviation Applied Technology Directorate, said in a statement.

That said, the Army did cite at least one particular technology that's caught its eye: the Common Infrared Countermeasure (CIRCM), a state-of-the-art high-tech laser jammer that would deflect shoulder-fired and other missiles headed for the aircraft. CIRCM is expected to be fielded by 2018.

Meanwhile, embedded diagnostic sensor technologies would closely monitor the use and maintenance of the helicopter, helping to cut costs and extend the service life of the aircraft.

"The next-generation aircraft will have to be a whole lot less expensive to operate than the current fleet," said Dave Weller, science and technology manager, Program Executive Office - Aviation, in a statement. "Also, a big issue is increasing reliability and shortening the supply chain to get the logistical benefits of commonality of parts. When we did an adjunct capability-based assessment done to identify gaps, we came up with some 55 gap areas. The number one gap was reliability."

That's all part of the Pentagon's longer-term plan known as Joint Future Vertical Lift, which has that far-off date of 2030 to put the next-generation helicopter fleet into the field. JFVL actually envisions four classes of aircraft: not just light, medium, and heavy-lift variants, but also an "ultra-class" behemoth.

Are you ready for another acronym? That biggest of the birds falls under the heading of JFTL (for Joint Future Theater Lift), a sort of rotorcraft equivalent to the versatile C-130 that could hoist and schlep ground vehicles such as the Stryker and hulking MRAPs without requiring a runway to get off the ground.

It's a very long lead time the Army's working with here to get to the helicopter of the future, but perhaps the service is also counting on those next-generation chopper designs to last as long, with modifications, as the Chinooks (five decades and counting) and Blackhawks (three decades) of today.

Let's just hope the planners, builders, and budgeteers keep an open mind to how technology evolves over the next 20 years or so.

Joint Multi-Role Demonstrator aircraft concept
Sticking with tradition: This concept looks most like the helicopter of today. U.S. Army