While helicopters have long had a reputation as the most nimble of aircraft, they’re also relatively slow compared to planes.
That’s the one drawback that the military and the flight industry seemed to have accepted as simply part of the trade off for such enhanced maneuverability. This assessment is all the more apparent when you consider how little helicopter design and technology has changed over the past few decades. My former SmartPlanet colleague John Herrman alluded to this fact in his post, “The American Military’s Helicopter Problem” where he wrote:
Currently available helicopters are equipped with modern weapons and communications technology, but their underlying designs are stuck in decades past. Here’s a quick rundown of the most popular helicopters used by the US Army, paired with the dates on which they were introduced:
Boeing AH-64D Apache: 1986
Sikorski UH-60M Black Hawk: 1974
Bell AH‑1Z Viper: 2000 (Based on the AH1, which debuted in 1969)
Bell UH-1Y Venom: 2001 (Based on the UH1N Huey, which debuted in 1969)
Even the newest helicopters share a lot of DNA with forebears that are, in technological terms, ancient. You can only upgrade an old design so many times.
The problem has to do with the fact that helicopters hover by using the lift generated by its spinning rotor blades, a mechanism that gives choppers their cat-like agility. As the aircraft flies forward, the incoming air generates more lift in the front than the air flowing towards the back. You can see how this can disrupt the aircraft’s balance when it travels at higher speeds. Helicopters usually don’t travel faster than 165 mph to ensure that it stays level.
But where some see limitations, Eurocopter, a Franco-German-Spanish company, sees an opportunity for innovation. On May 12th, their X3 prototype completed a flight test in which it was able to fly steadily at an average speed of 267 mph.
The X3 was designed to get around the air lift problem by combining a five-blade main rotor system with a pair of propellers installed on short-span fixed wings. Both the propellers and rotor are powered by the twin turboshaft engines.
Building fast helicopters means the aircraft could be used for long-distance search and rescue (SAR) missions, coast guard duties, border patrol missions, passenger transport, offshore operations and inter-city shuttle services. For the military, it can be especially useful in special forces operations, troop transport, combat SAR and medical evacuation.
Eurocopter will continue testing and developing the technology throughout the remainder of the year.
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