Military demonstration flights of a pair of European high-speed rotorcraft – the Airbus Racer and Leonardo Helicopters AW609 – are being contemplated for later this decade under an EU-funded programme.
The two airframers are working together on the European Next Generation Rotorcraft Technology (ENGRT) project that seeks to mature the technologies required for future vertical-lift platforms.
An initial €40 million ($42 million) has been pledged by the European Defence Fund for the first phase of the ENGRT effort, which held a kick-off meeting earlier this year.
Currently focussed on developing a concept of operations for future rotorcraft, the project foresees a flight demonstration phase on top of simulations, says David Alfano, next generation military rotorcraft manager at Airbus Helicopters.
“We will spend quite some time with different kinds of aircraft and we will assess which kind of capability is really bringing added value to the mission,” he says.
Airbus is likely to use its Racer high-speed compound technology demonstrator for the effort. That aircraft is being developed under the EU’s Clean Sky 2 civil programme and is due to fly later this year. Leonardo, meanwhile, could offer either the AW609 or, depending on timing, the Next Generation Civil Tiltrotor (NGCTR), another Clean Sky 2 project, says Alfano.
Racer and NGCTR are both dedicated civil technology demonstrators but would be illustrative of the potential performance gains from new architectures.
Ultimately the two airframers are likely to propose rotorcraft designs based on their core technologies – a compound helicopter for Airbus and a tiltrotor for Leonardo – and also a joint design, potentially using a more conventional architecture, says Alfano.
A “Racer in green” is a possibility, he says, “we have a very deep knowledge of that configuration” but notes that it will depend on “what customers would like to have”.
He stresses that defining exactly “what customers expect” will be key to the process.
Although the USA has focussed heavily on high-speed through its Future Vertical Lift initiative – with a baseline speed of 280kt (520km/h) – Alfano thinks European operators will “have a more balanced view”. US requirements have been driven by the so-called ‘tyranny of distance’ inherent in the Pacific theatre, a consideration not shared by their European counterparts.
“You cannot just copy a US solution for European needs – we have to go for a new solution.”
Requirements are likely to include endurance, simplicity of maintenance and the ability to be carried inside an Airbus Defence & Space A400M airlifter.
Transportability of the design plays against high speed, he says, noting that a helicopter’s mass must increase by around 30-35% if it is achieve 220kt and a payload of 18 troops is to be maintained.
Speed may still be a factor, but customers may settle simply for a faster conventional helicopter rather than a novel high-speed design, Alfano notes.
Draft operational concepts will be produced this year, helping to shape the programme’s top level requirements.
Airbus is co-ordinating the ENGRT programme, alongside Leonardo. It also includes a consortium of propulsion, weapons and sensor suppliers, plus academia and research bodies.
Future steps could also include the incorporation of the UK in the process.
Alfano spoke at Defence IQ’s International Military Helicopter conference in London on 21 February.