IN FOCUS: Eurocopter X3 ushers in new era of 'vertical lift commuting'

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Eurocopter chief executive officer Lutz Bertling says the EADS-owned manufacturer is now spending three times more on R&D than it did in 2006, the beginning of his tenure.

Much of the recent development spending has centred on two projects: the X3 high-speed helicopter, and the X4 ultra-efficient rotorcraft to replace the company's long-serving EC155 Dauphin.

Now gearing up for a third flight-test campaign, the X3 is less a helicopter in its own right than a proof of concept for the technology involved. Eurocopter has targeted a 50% productivity improvement for a 10-15% increase in running costs, and views the design - which combines two propellers and short wings for high-speed flight with a normal twin-engine-powered rotor for vertical lift - as "platform agnostic". In other words, it could be utilised on any model in the manufacturer's range.

eurocopter x3 - eurocopter

 © Eurocopter

Eurocopter is particularly keen on defining civil applications for the concept, given the concerns over future military spending. Bertling sees two potential uses for the X3 technology. One is in the oil and gas industry, where cutting an hour from a 200-300nm (370-555km) journey to a distant oil rig represents a clear saving, he says, despite the higher fuel burn. The other is an entirely new usage: vertical lift commuting.

"Runways not in the planning stage now will not be ready before 2030, but air traffic will continue to grow," says Bertling. "Slots will become a more and more scarce resource. Therefore I believe that in the [20]20s and [20]30s there will be room for vertical lift commuting, providing it can offer the right level of speed and comfort."

Although the X3 demonstrator is based on a Dauphin airframe, with the commuting mission profile in mind, the X3 is more likely to go into production on a higher-capacity rotorcraft such as the AS332 Super Puma or something larger still, according to chief technology officer Jean-Michel Billig.

"It's not unrealistic to believe that by 2020-21 there will be an X3-based helicopter on the market," he says.

So far, the airframer has taken the X3 to 230kt (426km/h), but at only 70% power. The next round of testing will push that higher, says Billig, potentially breaking the rotorcraft speed record of 250kt held by Sikorsky's co-axial rotor X2.

However, Billig maintains the object of the testing is not to smash any records, but to "understand the physics involved".

Meanwhile, work on the quieter, more fuel-efficient X4 continues quietly. Eurocopter classes it as a development programme, not just a research project or a technology demonstrator, with first flight targeted for 2015. Billig says the X4's architecture is now frozen, and the firm is working on a detailed specification for partners and suppliers.

The programme was boosted last year by French government funding of €500m ($658m), split between Eurocopter and its project partners: Safran, Thales and Daher.

"We are very pleased because this gives us the opportunity to have a high level of innovation. We are accelerating maturation of the technology," says Billig.

Innovations will include a carbonfibre fuselage, fabricated by Daher, and composite rotorblades, featuring Eurocopter's unique "hockey stick" shape. These will be made in the company's new blade factory in Le Bourget, near Paris, a €60-100 million ($80-130 million) investment by the airframer, due to come on stream in late 2014 or 2015. The aircraft will also feature fly-by-wire controls and, eventually, a new avionics suite.