Eurocopter to dazzle this decade

Washington DC
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One year ago, Sikorsky dominated the Heli Expo buzz with a very public unveiling of its X2 advancing blade concept demonstrator, an aircraft that to date has reached 106kt (195km/h) and is expected to gradually ramp up to 250kt by year's end.

Rival Eurocopter, which generated nearly identical revenue with Sikorsky in 2009 - about $6.3 billion - rallied at this year's show, however, revealing new technologies fresh from its laboratories, and promising to launch one new technology demonstrator or upgrade programme every year for the next 10 years, which is likely to include a fast helicopter that will challenge the X2.

For 2010, Eurocopter chief executive Lutz Bertling promises two first flights in the third quarter, with both aircraft coming to Heli Expo in 2011. The company plans to spend $1.75 billion over the next five years on technologies that include advances environmental friendliness, which Bertling says will be a key purchasing differentiator post 2015, decreased crew workload and ride comfort.

In the noise realm, Eurocopter says its double-swept "blue edge" main rotor blade will reduce blade-vortex interactions, providing passive noise reduction. The company began windtunnel testing on the technology as early as 1998 on a scaled rotor, and 2007 began flying blue edge on a five-bladed EC155, accumulating 75 flight hours to date.

Since 2005, Eurocopter has been flying a piezo-active blade flap system called Blue Pulse. The three flap modules at the trailing edge of each of the four rotor blades on an EC145 have been shown to completely eliminate the "slap noise" of a helicopter during descent, says Eurocopter.

Sikorsky too has been investing in active rotor blade technology through its new Sikorsky Innovations organisation, home also to the X2. Called the "mission adaptive rotor" programme, Sikorsky president Jeff Pino says the outcome of the research will be a in a "switch" in the cockpit that allows pilots to select an optimum noise, speed or lift performance.

Sikorsky Innovations has won an initial $5.9 million, 16-month contract from the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of a three-phase programme to develop and demonstrate active rotor systems.

In the longer term, Bertling says Eurocopter has selected its preferred technology to compete with Sikorsky's X2 for speed, which Eurocopter refers to as "extending the domain" of the helicopter.

"We're participating with European Union on tiltrotor research," says Bertling, " but we are also doing our own. We have made our choice on what technology to use." Asked when the world would see the results of those deliberations, Bertling would only say "it will be within my lifespan."