HELI-EXPO: Robinson’s light-single success prompts Bell reaction

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Robinson Helicopter's early success in the market with a relatively cheap, turbine-powered helicopter appears set to push Bell Helicopter into launching a response.

The rotorcraft industry has long buzzed with rumours of a light, single-engined helicopter project under way at Bell, and chief executive John Garrison does not deny the company's keen interest in developing a competitor to the Robinson R66.

"It's a pretty competitive space, and we need to figure out a way to be competitive," Garrison says.

Bell's interest in a market largely created by Robinson's success in some ways means the light single-engined market has come full circle. Bell partly created and popularised the segment with the 47 and, later, the 206 JetRanger.

But Robinson, which was founded by a former Bell engineer, has chipped away at the bottom end of the light-single market for decades with the piston-powered R22 and, more recently, the R44. It was not until Robinson introduced the Rolls-Royce RR300-engined R66 three years ago, however, that Bell seemed compelled to respond to the new threat.

Robinson reported delivering 191 turbine-powered R66s last year, and the California-based airframer said in January that it expects to deliver even more helicopters in 2013.

Bell now confirms it is targeting the launch of a new light-single with a price tag below $1 million, perhaps even matching the $850,000 list price of the R66.

Company officials believe the market will respond to a lower-priced helicopter featuring Bell's record of safety, reliability and quality.

The key challenge for Bell is likely to be not designing such a simple product, but building it in a way that can meet the desired price without exceeding the required cost.

It will also have to balance the investment in a certification programme for an all-new helicopter at the same time that it is still early in development of the super-medium 525 Relentless.

But Bell has demonstrated a fresh willingness to launch new commercial products as it seeks to balance the company's portfolio with the revenue streams from the military and support services divisions.