How Airbus Helicopters is designing the next-generation of rotorcraft at its new Development Centre in Marignane, France. TIM ROBINSON reports from the company’s ‘Skunk Works’ pushing the boundaries of rotary technology.

‘Fail fast, fail often’ is the new mantra at Airbus Helicopters (AirbusHC) Development Centre at its factory in Marignane, Marseilles, France – which is embracing a Silicon Valley-style approach to stimulating ideas and creativity from its workers. The centre, inaugurated in 2016, brings together around 1,000 engineers from AirbusHC to brainstorm radical ideas and work on projects for the next generation of rotorcraft. The design and development work spans tweaks to existing models to futuristic VTOL flying machines, such as autonomous aerial taxis, UAVs and even augmented reality (AR) applications for manufacturing.

Though AirbusHC stresses that not all those in the building are involved in innovation (and that innovation is widespread across the company) the building acts as a central hub for rapid prototyping, experimentation and sharing ideas. Taking its inspiration from Silicon Valley tech firms like Google or Facebook, the Centre features innovation labs, as well as a multitude of meeting areas, along with coffee spaces to encourage engineers from different areas to collaborate and brainstorm ideas.

The labs themselves are hi-tech workshops with 3D printing machines and other tools to enable engineers to quickly get hands-on with hardware or to build rapid prototypes or models. Meanwhile, open-plan shared spaces are designed to provide the perfect work environment for innovation and creativity. The team, for example, working on VIP interiors for the H160, features a private meeting capsule, visualisation management on the walls and glossy lifestyle magazines to help put them into the mindset of VIP and corporate helicopter customers.

While tech labs and meeting spaces take up most of the Centre, the ground floor is devoted to actual full-size hardware – allowing engineers working on projects to easily handle with the prototypes. 

Key to the Development Centre is a willingness for engineers to experiment and ‘fail fast, fail often’. Engineering design projects therefore are focused ‘sprints’ and feature ad hoc multidisciplinary teams put together to solve a particular problem. These ‘sprints’ last from either a week to three months, with the goal to either quickly make progress, add more resources, or to move on to the next project. Crucially, says Remi Maillard, Chief Engineer Development Helicopters, it is important that there are not too many ‘sprints’ going on simultaneously to dilute the effort.

The bigger picture

Airbus Helicopters is trialing Augmented Reality (AR) technology as a way of improving manufacturing speed and efficiency. (Airbus Helicopters) 

This is part of a wider push by AirbusHC to fully embrace, exploit and accelerate the possibilities offered by digitisation and innovation – an initiative that is also going on in the parent group and in its airliner business. A third focus, stressed by AirbusHC CEO Gulliame Faury, is fast-track ‘increased maturity’ of its products, using advanced tools, facilities and processes to de-risk products and provide high levels of reliability from the get-go.

This innovation and digitisation effort, believes AirbusHC, will pay off in the form of getting products more quickly to market, with greater efficiencies and enhanced safety for customers. 

A milestone year for the H160

"We have a spirit at Airbus Helicopters and this aircraft is the top of that spirit" Olivier Gensse, Chief test Pilot, H160 (Airbus Helicopters)

This innovation is already feeding into AirbusHC’s flagship H160 project. Indeed, 2017 is set to be a milestone year for AirbusHC’s new H160 twin-engine medium helicopter with a third prototype joining the two already flying, a customer signing by the end of the year and the first serial airframe to enter final assembly.

Giving an update to the media earlier in February, Bernard Fujarski, Head of H160 Programme, revealed that the H160, which was launched in 2015, had already racked up over 360 hours in flight testing with the two prototypes. The third, currently being assembled, will be used to test the indirect effect of lightning strikes.

While the H160, with its canted Fenestron, biplane stabiliser and Blue Edge rotors, is striking enough from the outside, AirbusHC test pilots were effusive in praising its benign handling qualities. Even with the autopilot and stability augmentation switched off it is ‘very stable’ to fly, said Olivier Gensse, Chief Flight Test Pilot. The H160 is designed for ease of operation and, with ten minutes of pre-flight, can be started up in two minutes, he said. Gensse also noted the H160’s outstanding quietness, remarking that, during hover taxiing with a H125 chase helicopter, the Squirrel could be heard over the H160’s internal cabin noise.

Sadly, with a packed flight test programme to complete, it is not clear when the H160 might make its public air show debut. While one H160 was recently undergoing cold weather testing in Canada, AirbusHC could not spare one of the prototypes for Heli-Expo in Dallas last month. Fujarski also was unable to confirm whether a H160 would be free to appear at Le Bourget in late June. Could that mean that the H160 might make its international air show debut at Farnborough 2018?

With entry-into-service in 2019, AirbusHC is gearing up for production of the H160 with the first serial production airframe entering the factory this year. Here the rotorcraft division is taking cues from the airliner part of Airbus, with large assemblies (such as the tail section) arriving in the factory already pre-wired and fitted out as much as possible – speeding up final assembly in Marignane. Once production is up and running, AirbusHC expects to build 50 H160s a year. Ideas from airliner development don’t end there. AirbusHC will also replicate the Airbus A350’s ‘Airline1’ maturity and operations environment with the H160 to de-risk and troubleshoot the helicopter, eliminating operational teething troubles well before the first customer takes delivery. Indeed, Airbus’ efforts to enhance the maturity are already paying off, with the company flying the prototypes 20% more at this stage of testing than previous models.      

First H160 customer demonstration flights began last year with feedback ‘beyond expectations’, according to Fujarski, who added that the company expects to sign a first firm civil H160 customer from the LOIs it already has by the end of 2017. However, in early March, a proposed military derivative of the H160 received a huge boost when the French MoD announced it had selected it for its tri-service light helicopter replacement programme. This will see between 160-190 H160s replace existing aging types including, Alouette IIIs, AS365 Dauphins, AS555 Fennecs and SA342 Gazelles operating by the French Navy, Air Force and Army.


Targeting a naval niche

Europe has conceded ground to US and Israeli UAV manufacturers - can Airbus HC's VSR700 help make it up? 

Another military rotorcraft being worked at the AirbusHC’s Development Centre, is the VSR700 – a shipboard naval VTOL UAV based on the Guimbal Cabri G2 light helicopter. The diesel-powered VSR700 is being developed in partnership with naval shipbuilders DNCS with the goal of a VTOL UAV for ISR missions able to stay aloft for 10+ hours with a 100kg payload. A first autonomous flight with a modified Cabri G2 and a safety pilot is set for this year, with a maiden flight of the VSR700 in 2018 and first deliveries in 2020. While the maritime VTOL UAV market is becoming increasingly crowded with systems such as the MQ-8C FireScout, Schiebel Camcopter S-100 and UMS Skedar, AirbusHC believes that the 700kg VSR700 occupies a niche with no direct competitors.


Future rotorcraft

A new configuration of Airbus HCs LifeRCraft demonstrator is set to be revealed at Le Bourget in the summer. (Airbus Helicopters)

Beyond the H160, the recent super-medium H175 and updates to existing products (the H125/H130 now come equipped with Garmin 500 glass cockpits) the company is working on a wide range of short, medium and long-term rotorcraft technology, explained Tomasz Krysinski, Head of Research and Innovation. AirbusHC’s goals for rotorcraft, he explained, are reduced cost and noise, higher speed, more autonomy and lower fuel consumption than today’s helicopters. To achieve these, AirbusHC is innovating across a wide spectrum, which, as well as the air vehicles themselves, also covers advancing manufacturing, MRO and new service models. In particular, the company sees huge opportunities for lowering costs and improving safety by collecting and analysing ‘big data’ from helicopter health monitoring and predictive maintenance: “We are at the beginning of a new era” for this technology, says CEO Faury.

But full size prototypes are also vital in advancing technology. In tests AirbusHC’s H135-based Bluecopter technology demonstrator, said Krysinski, had cut the noise footprint in half, thanks to a five-bladed rotor, rotor hub fairing and advanced Fenestron tail system. Meanwhile, its HCE demonstrator, which uses a piston engine in place of a standard turbine, had demonstrated a whopping 42% reduction in fuel burn – which could translate into a 30% reduction in operating costs – a potential game changer for light helicopters. 

Further out in the future, AirbusHC is now working on a follow-up to its X3 (X-cubed) high-speed hybrid rotorcraft demonstrator, under the European Clean Sky 2 green aviation research project. The goal, says Krysinski, is to develop a helicopter that is 50% faster than existing models but with only 20% increase in costs. Speed – ‘but not any price’, says Krysinski, could open up new civil markets for high-speed rotorcraft, such as VIP, SAR or EMS, where speed for the ‘golden hour’ of medical attention is critical. Although Bell/Boeing’s V-22 tiltrotor has scored its first export customer in Japan, AirbusHC believes that a simpler, more affordable high-speed VTOL solution would open up a wider military market. 

The Clean Sky 2 LifeRCraft (Low Impact Fast & Efficient RotorCraft), which passed wind-tunnel tests last year, moves into preliminary design review this year, with a first flight targeted for 2020. The design slows and unloads the main rotor to provide lift with stub-wing mounted propellers providing forward thrust in high speed mode. The LifeRCraft will use Safran RTM322 turboshaft engines. Interestingly, the stub-wings include control surfaces and the twin-engined LifeRCraft will be designed to be able to shut down an engine in flight to cruise at 190kt in fuel saving mode. While AirbusHC has previously released concept images of the LifeRCraft, Krysinski says that a new configuration will be unveiled this summer at the Paris Air Show.


Aerial taxis and drone deliveries

Skyways sees Airbus Helicopters partner with the National University of Singapore to trial urban drone deliveries. (Airbus Helicopters) 

As well as what might be described as a 21st century successor to the Fairey Rotodyne, AirbusHC is also looking further into the future of VTOL aerial transport by supporting Airbus Group concepts for ‘flying cars’ and ‘aerial taxis’. Its A3 (A cubed) start-up plans to test fly an electric VTOL aircraft with distributed propulsion later this year. Meanwhile, a larger VTOL ‘flying car’ concept, the CityAirbus with four ducted fans, would seat 3-4 passengers. Airbus HC estimates from market studies that the potential market for this kind of VTOL urban aerial passenger transport could be two and a half times bigger than current helicopters.

However, for these passenger ‘aerial taxis’ to take-off – there needs to be a deep understanding and knowledge of autonomy, intelligent systems and AI – both for any advanced autopilot in the air vehicle itself and for any automated ATM system that would run an urban air traffic system. To understand these and other related challenges better, AirbusHC has partnered with the National University of Singapore in the Skyways project to trial delivery of small parcels using drones across the university campus. Though Airbus has already flown its UAVs at an undisclosed location, the time schedules for this project are aggressive – with the company aiming to trial seamless deliveries using a octo-copter UAV by 2018. This technology demonstration is also ambitious in attempting to operate in the toughest environment of a densely populated urban area – rather than rural locations favoured by other competitors. This demonstration, is not designed to produce a ‘product’ like an ‘AirbusHC drone’ but is instead an exploration of ‘systems of systems’ and using Airbus core values (safety and security) in a market that is currently dominated by consumer or ‘toy’ products. 



'The next thing' - CityAirbus would be a radical departure from traditional rotorcraft - ushering in a age of autonomous aerial vehicles. (AirbusGroup)

In short, AirbusHC’s Development Centre provides a fascinating counterpart to digitisation and innovation efforts underway in the rest of Airbus. It is clear that, despite the subdued civil market for rotorcraft (2016 was a “rather challenging year”, noted Faury), focusing on R&D and innovation now will keep Airbus Helicopters ahead of the power curve in the future. Indeed, such is the ferocious pace of innovation, that Kryinski, who observed students in the US concerned that he would berate them for appearing to copy Airbus’ Blue Edge rotor on a recent visit laughed: “I told them not to worry and go ahead and do it – we’re now on to the next thing.”

Tim Robinson
17 March 2017

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