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​ROTORCRAFT: Sikorsky eyes future autonomous helicopters

Sikorsky believes automation and data analytics can both improve helicopter safety and boost efficiency for operators.

Chris Van Buiten, vice-president of Sikorsky Innovations, says the company is working on greatly increasing automation in the cockpit, helping to transform helicopter pilots into a role that places greater emphasis on monitoring the aircraft, as opposed to actively flying it.

“Our focus has been putting autonomy into our 12 and 19 passenger helicopters, and beginning the process of having a certifiable system that can actually fly with two crew, one crew, or no crew,” he says.

The company has already demonstrated the concept with an S-76 that has what Van Buiten calls a “super computer” on board – the company designates this aircraft SARA (Sikorsky Autonomous Research Aircraft).

“With 15 minutes of orientation, a non-pilot could be taking off in an S-76,” he says.

He acknowledges that certification of such a system probably will not occur until the middle of the 2020s, but the company’s efforts in the field of autonomy are already on offer to customers. One example he gives is the automated rig approach option available for the S-92, a popular type in the oil & gas sector.

“We’ll put more and more functionality in the current products, eventually going all the way to fly-by-wire with autonomy in both commercial and military products. This will drive out costs and fundamentally improve safety.”

Van Buiten also touched on the issue that automation could reduce safety by decreasing pilots’ flying skills.

“There is a danger zone, but we’re moving this to a very high level of automation in the airplane. If the pilots are not in the cockpit, everyone is going to survive. The helicopter will be able to automatically land, return to base, or even complete the mission. We think the idea of an autopilot kicking out and handing an airplane over to an inattentive pilot is just not going to work.”

Another area where Sikorsky sees great potential is the monitoring of precise performance data from helicopters, including analysis of loads placed on key components.

Generally, best practice calls for key parts to be replaced based on imprecise measures, such as the number of cycles. Precise monitoring measures the aircraft second-by-second could, for example, allowing operators to more accurately assess stresses placed on a helicopter’s rotor blades. This means operators and the manufacturer can better determine the optimum time for replacement or maintenance.

Van Buiten spoke with FlightGlobal at Sikorsky's stand at the inaugural Rotorcraft Asia event.

Christophe Nurit, who heads Sikorsky's sales in the region, says the event is an important development for the region’s commercial helicopter sector. Nurit is also sits on the show’s steering committee.

“This show is very special. Outside China, it is the first dedicated helicopter show in the region...it is still small, but it will grow.”

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